INDIA'S constitution, ratified in 1950, promised "to provide within 10 years ... free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years." But the country is still a long way from meeting this goal - a delay that keeps millions of children in the labor force, according to analysts here.
Only 43 percent of the school-age population - aged 4 to 23 - was enrolled in school in 1988, and the primary school dropout rate was 39 percent that year, one of the highest in the world. Primary education is hardly ever compulsory in India.
More than a dozen of the country's 25 states have passed legislation establishing compulsory education, according to columnist B.G. Verghese, a former newspaper editor now with New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, but the implementation of these laws is left to local officials.
One problem, says Swami Agnivesh, a former state minister for education and now a child-labor activist, is that children are an important source of labor. Fifty-five million children work eight or more hours a day, says Mr. Agnivesh, and many of them work under duress or in hazardous conditions.
"The only way to end child labor is to sincerely implement this mandate on primary education," he says. Instead, Agnivesh says, India has chosen to focus on higher education. "No wonder we have a mushrooming growth of expensive private schools for the privileged," while government schools lack facilities and staff.