When India’s Parliament passed the controversial Child Labour bill earlier this week, not many across the globe were ecstatic. Reason: the law would allow children to work for family businesses. Critics argued that this could lead to worsening instances of school drop outs or attendance irregularities among the marginalised children.

Turns out their fears might not be totally unwarranted or misplaced.

Consider this: over 23% of the world’s children who are out of school are in India, as per statistics recently released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This is despite India having been globally lauded for making striking progress in reaching the universal education goal since the year 2000. In absolute terms, nearly 61 million children in India are out of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education, all in the age group of 6 to 17 years. World over, this figure is at 263 million.

One in three adolescents in the age bracket of 15-17 years that are out of school is in India. This figure adds to a whopping 47 million youth, representing approximately half of the entire youth population in the country. Pakistan with 10 million, and Bangladesh with 8 million such youngsters, are the other two worst performing countries making South Asia the region with the highest number of out-of-school youth.

In the primary age group, six countries, including India (2.9 million), are home to more than one-third of all out-of-school children of primary school age. The other countries are Nigeria (8.7 million), Pakistan (5.6 million), Sudan (2.7 million), Ethiopia (2.1 million) and Indonesia (2 million).

India also constitutes the highest share in the case of out-of-school children in the lower secondary school age (13-15 years) at 11.1 million such children. Pakistan follows next at 5.5 million, Ethiopia, 3.6 million, Bangladesh, 2.2 million, and Indonesia and Myanmar at 1.9 million each.

Globally, this amounts to one out of 11 primary school age children, one out of six lower secondary school age adolescents and one out of every three upper secondary school age youth not being in school today.

As per data from District Information System for Education (DISE), Jammu & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh are the worst performing state in India with regards to gross enrolment ratio at secondary level.

Of course, in some cases while the children in these age groups have never been to school, in yet others, several of them have dropped out of their education mid-way.

What explains such dismal rates of children in schools?

One oft-cited factor is of course poverty in India causing children from young ages to take up jobs to support their families.

As per Census 2011 figures, almost 15% of youngsters in the age group of 15-19 years were already main workers. Over 10% of them were marginal workers, while 16.7% of those without a job were actively seeking employment. The World Development Indicators figures released in May this year reports that 32% of India’s youth population (15-24 year olds) were employed as of 2014. A 2015 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) put the number of child workers in India between the ages of 5 to 17 years, at 5.8 million out of 168 million globally.

More than half of India’s child workers work in agriculture and more than a quarter are engaged in manufacturing – embroidering clothes, weaving carpets or making match sticks. Children in India can be often seen working in restaurants, shops and hotels as domestic workers.

But while school drop outs are a concern for children among all age groups, experts say it is the case of the youth population that is of most worrying. Most children educated up to lower secondary school end up working as casual or contract labourers, hindering their chances of landing financially secure jobs in future.

As per statistics given out by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), over 55% of drop outs in urban India are seen in the case of children above the age of 15. This is especially true in the case of women. In rural India, more than two in every five drop outs are in case of children of age 16-24 years.

Child panipuri

Children in India can be often seen working in restaurants, shops and hotels as domestic workers. Image by Anish1321 via wikimedia commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Another reason for low upper secondary school education is that the Right to Education Act (RTE) provides free and compulsory education for all children in the age group of 6-14 years. No such provision exists in the case of children 15 years and older.

A survey by the NSSO conducted between July and June 2013-14, revealed that children in the age group of 5-19 years did not attend school for reasons such as supplementing household income, attending to domestic chores, school being too far, or for the sheer reason of not considering education necessary enough.

As per the UNESCO report, one quarter of the 63% of upper-secondary-age youth enrolled in schools worldwide are in primary or lower secondary education, due to late entry, repetition of a class or both.

“Supply of education has not kept in pace with the increase in demand. Poor school infrastructure or poor quality of teachers, often cause children to drop out from schools,” said a professor from IIT Delhi, who refused to be quoted.

The Draft National Education Policy 2016 released last month seeks to address these issues. The recommendations mandate the identification of schools with low enrolment rates as well as expansion and upgradation of schools with inadequate facilities for children to enable higher retention rates of children in the education system.

The Gender Bias

The UNESCO report also highlights the gender bias that exists in the education system. 5.5 million out-of-school children of primary school age were males, as against 5.9 million females in South Asia. Of these, while 44% of male children were likely to attend school in future, the figure for the female child stood at a poor 9%. What is even more shocking is that 81% of these female children were unlikely to ever enter school, as against only 42% of male children.

Girl Student - Gender BiasThe gender gap in South Asia is worse

Gender discrimination is especially stark in India. With the median age of marriage among women in India still being low, women are forced to assist with domestic chore at an early age, compelling them to drop out of their education. As per NSSO figures, a much higher percentage of women than men drop out of school because their education is considered “unnecessary”.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) data, 15 million girls of primary school age will never have the opportunity to learn to read and write, as against about 10 million boys. The gender gap in South Asia is worse, where four out of five out-of-school girls will never enter the formal education system as compared to two out of five out-of-school boys.

Sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and Western Asia are the regions that registered the widest gender gaps in terms of school drop outs.

Long Road Ahead

These dismal statistics do not mean that progress in terms of school enrolment has been low – in India or across the globe. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of out-of-school children of primary age declined by almost 40% globally. The number of out-of-school lower secondary children declined by over 38%, while the number of out-of-school youth showed a 19.5% decline.

But clearly, a lot more needs to be done. A multitude of reasons for children to remain out of schools spring from unrelated factors. For instance, as per the report, in 2014, areas in 32 countries affected by armed conflict constituted 35% of the global number of out-of-school children. 15 million, or 25% of out-of-school adolescents of lower secondary age and 26 million or 18% of all out-of-school youth of upper secondary age lived in conflict affected areas, the report stated.

Lack of proper food and sanitation is another problem causing children to drop out from schools. This is especially true in the case of developing countries such as India. Data shows that there is a sharp and direct correlation between sanitation infrastructure in schools and retention of students in primary schools.

In September of 2014, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the absence of toilets in schools cause girls who enrol in primary school to drop out soon. It will be interesting to see whether the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which has undertaken the gargantuan task of providing proper sanitation facilities across the country, will be able to affect school enrolment rates positively.

UNICEF representative to India, Louis-Georges Arsenault said in 2014, that malnutrition was another factor that needs to be addressed in this regard. “Half of the children in the country are still malnourished…malnutrition will only be addressed by a looking at a more comprehensive approach towards nutrition and not only food,” Arsenault is reported to have said.

To make students interested in their education, the disconnect between what students are taught and what they perceive as relevant for their lives also need to be addressed. Curriculum in India’s education system is often accused of comprising of archaic subjects and prejudiced content. With such a wide mix of religions and communities in India, addressing this has been no easy task.

Tackling low enrolment rates in India will mean improving all of these factors hand in hand.