Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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10 year old laborer at brick kiln
A 10-year-old laborer works at a brick kiln in West Bengal, India.
Photo by Romano/Stolen Childhoods,

Rubiana Chamarbagwala
Rubiana Chamarbagwala
Photo © 2007 Tyagan Miller

Labor Pains

by Lauren J. Bryant

They serve tea at roadside eateries and harvest fiber from silkworms to fashion saris. They sit on factory floors weaving carpets, assembling matches, or manufacturing cigarettes. They work in quarries and foundries and mines. They herd cattle and harvest crops. Many of them clean houses, wash dishes, do laundry, and care for children for 12 hours or more every day.

These are the child laborers of India.

Estimates vary, but at least 12 to 13 million children in India work five to seven days a week. They range in age from 5 to 14. Despite the 20-year-old Child Labour Act and a new national child labor ban enacted in October 2006, child labor in India remains a fact of life.

Rubiana Chamarbagwala knows this firsthand. Growing up in the huge metropolis of Bombay, she saw "a lot of children working, not being treated well, not going to school." Plus, as part of a privileged family, she had servants, some of them children. "When you grow up in a culture where child labor is so accepted, you don't really see it, you don't pay attention," Chamarbagwala says today. "You don't think twice about it when you are a part of that culture."

Since then, Chamarbagwala has done a lot of thinking about child labor. Currently an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Bloomington, she now sees that culture is a crucial factor in the child labor problem.

Culture is what economists call an "unobservable"--a factor that cannot be directly measured--so treating it as a major variable in an economic analysis is unusual. To determine what drives parents' investment in the human capital of their children, for example, most economists look to factors such as a family's limited access to credit, local labor market conditions, or "crop shocks" (when a household's crops fail). But Chamarbagwala argues that unobservable determinants must be considered, too.

Economics is fundamentally about decision-making, she explains--the decisions humans make regarding the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. "And people do not make decisions outside of their social context. You perceive what is good and bad based on what others around you perceive as good and bad," she says. "Economists don't tend to take that into account when they write papers, but I think it needs to be."

To capture the influence of unobservables in her analyses, Chamarbagwala uses measurable variables drawn from socioeconomic data as proxies to point to less quantifiable attitudes and inclinations.

In one recent study, for example, Chamarbagwala (and co-author Rusty Tchernis, also of the IUB Economics Department ) combined information on children's activities in India with data on parents' education, schools, wages and household income, and poverty levels in an effort to isolate the potential impact of noneconomic social norms.

"What we found is that there is a lot of regional variation," Chamarbagwala says. "Even though we controlled for factors like parents' education and household income, we still found a lot of variation regarding schooling, child labor, or idleness, which is neither attending school nor working. That suggests that there are certain places where children are less likely to work and more likely to go to school, which is not based on economic fundamentals. If we have these clusters of high schooling and low idleness, even after controlling for observable predictors of children's activities, then why is that happening?"

The results are preliminary, she says, but the variations suggest that different values determine why parents in India do or do not send children to school versus why they do or do not send them to work.

In many cases, Chamarbagwala points out, parents have no choice. Despite the growth of globalization boomtowns such as Bangalore, India remains a very poor country. "The divide between the haves and have-nots is very stark," Chamarbagwala says. "If the law says your child cannot work, that doesn't change the fact that parents need to send their children to work because the family is starving. They can't afford not to, because they need their children's income to survive."

But the economic factor of poverty--powerful as it is--is not the only influence on parents' decisions. Social attitudes are at work as well, says Chamarbagwala, and child labor in India won't change until policies begin to reflect the varying cultural and social contexts of parents.

For example, Chamarbagwala and Tchernis identify districts where parents are more inclined "to seize opportunities to invest in their children's human capital," but point out that different policies are needed to get different parents to make that investment--one set that encourages moving idle nonworking children into school, and another set that enables parents to stop their children from working. Government interventions aimed at improving schools and increasing "returns to education" by creating better jobs have the potential to get more idle children enrolled. In other districts that placed a low social value on child labor but also had few children in school, however, policies that enable parents to remove their children from the labor market may succeed best.

In the latter case, one possibility, Chamarbagwala suggests, is a part-time work-study approach. Instead of banning child labor outright, she says, children would "work a bit, earn some money, and then the rest of the time, go to school to learn a skill or get a basic education. The idea is to slowly try to get a child to gain more skills and knowledge, to give that child some options, at least. Otherwise, we have the child labor trap--a child works and does not get a good job when he grows up, so his children work, and then his children's children must work, and the family never gets out of it."

Economist that she is, Chamarbagwala is well aware of the significant costs of the policies she suggests. That's why she advocates careful targeting of policies to small groups of districts, in keeping with the economic and cultural variables of the area. As she puts it, "building new schools in a village won't increase schooling if the parents there have a high propensity to allow their children to remain idle or if parents are sending their children to work because they have to."

India's missing women

Recently, Chamarbagwala has turned her attention to the effects of cultural values on women's lives in India. Anti-female bias in the country is profound, extending all the way to aborted females and girl babies who die after birth from neglect or murder. These females are known as India's "missing women"--a term coined by Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen in 1992. At the time, Sen estimated the number of missing women throughout Asia to be more than 100 million. More current estimates range between 40 and 50 million for India's missing women alone.

Writing about missing women in a 2003 British Medical Journal article, Sen noted the fact that Indian states in the north and west of the country have substantially lower female-to-male birth ratios than states in the east and south. Arguing that the split cannot be explained by availability of medical resources (both halves have similar resources), religious backgrounds (Hindus and Muslims are spread throughout the country), or income levels (states with the lowest number of girls include the richest ones, such as Punjab and Haryana), Sen asked: "Are there differences in traditional cultural values that are hidden away? Is there any cultural significance in the fact that religion-based parties have been able to make much bigger inroads precisely in the north and the west and not in the east and the south?"

The answer to Sen's questions is a definite yes, according to Chamarbagwala. In a 2006 paper called "India's Missing Women: Disentangling Cultural, Political, and Economic Variables" (co-written with Martin Ranger, of IU Bloomington's Kelley School of Business), Chamarbagwala and Ranger find a "statistically significant negative correlation between the number of girls born and the share of votes won by religious parties." In other words, the more votes conservative and nationalist religious parties receive in a given district, the fewer girls survive.

Chamarbagwala hastens to point out that this doesn't mean the religious parties are responsible for the girls going missing. But voting for certain religious parties is an observable proxy that expresses a particular conservative mindset, she says. It is a mindset that prefers sons and sees women as burdens because they are unable to support or bring honor to the family and because they necessitate dowry payments. (Like child labor, dowry has been illegal in India for decades, but the practice is still prevalent, placing an enormous burden on poorer parents.)

While lack of employment and dowry payments are economic "constraints" on women's lives, Chamarbagwala and Ranger argue that, as with child labor, such economic factors are inextricably linked to cultural attitudes and perceptions. Traditional conservative ideals in India regarding women's modesty and subordination directly influence the economic worth of girls. "The low value and status of women in India ultimately translates into a high economic burden and high economic constraint," says Chamarbagwala.

As India's economy grows, many argue that rising income levels will reduce the economic burden of women and girls, allowing more females to be born and raised. But according to Chamarbagwala, this isn't the case. In richer districts where household expenditure levels are higher, female-to-male birth ratios are lower. Chamarbagwala and others speculate that rising income may actually increase gender discrimination in the country because of widespread and affordable sex-selection practices. "You have people going around doing the tests, even in the villages, and aborting female fetuses. It's demand-driven," she says. "The attitude among some parents is, ‘let's pay 500 Rs. and get rid of a girl now, rather than pay 5,000 Rs. in dowry later on, and be in debt for life."

Chamarbagwala agrees that economic growth has benefited some women. More Indian women are receiving educations and participating in the work force. "But it's the upper middle class who are benefiting," she says. "Things are changing, but they are changing for a very small fraction of society."

Relying on economic growth alone is bad policy, according to Chamarbagwala. "Instead of relying on rising income and the availability of better economic opportunities for women to lead to more balanced sex ratios," she and Ranger write, "cultural obstacles have to be overcome." And in this case, the obstacle is nothing less than changing Indian attitudes about men and women.

The process of change

Chamarbagwala concedes that changing gender relations--or parental decision-making--is no trivial task, and she admits that her conclusions may seem "far-fetched." But by highlighting the important role of the non-economic when it comes to crafting new policies or implementing existing ones, she believes her analyses can help India's women and children. "Things can be done in India," she says. "Sure, it's very difficult to change the way people think, but maybe we can make some people see that changing attitudes can make a difference."

If culture is so difficult to measure, though, and the conclusions (changing parental decisions or chauvinistic attitudes) so overwhelming, why bother to analyze cultural variables at all? Won't social and cultural norms simply change on their own, over time, as society changes?

Perhaps. But in India, Chamarbagwala argues, the evolution of social norms lags far behind what many economists and analysts predict. Education and economic growth have increased but child labor persists, and the number of idle children is increasing. Millions of children are cut off from the education that could greatly improve their futures, economic and otherwise. And in the case of missing women, girls are dying.

In fact, says Chamarbagwala, "when you compare census maps from 1981, 1991, and 2001, you see that female-male ratios in the north and west of India are getting increasingly lower, and that is even spreading to neighboring regions. That's pretty scary.

"We can wait for decades, hoping things will get better, but things are not getting better," she says. "If we can show how cultural variables play a role, then maybe we can hasten the process of change."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.

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