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Status of children in India

With more than a third of its population below the age of 18, India has the largest child population in the world. This backgrounder explores the levels of health, nutrition, education and social security of children, and government policy and action on child rights

India has made some significant commitments towards ensuring the basic rights of children. There has been progress in overall indicators: infant mortality rates are down, child survival is up, literacy rates have improved and school dropout rates have fallen. But the issue of child rights in India is still caught between legal and policy commitments to children on the one hand, and the fallout of the process of globalisation on the other.

Over the last decade, countries across the world have been changing their existing economic models in favour of one driven by the free market, incorporating processes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. The direct impact of free trade on children may not leap to the eye, but we do know that globalised India is witnessing worsening levels of basic health, nutrition and shelter. Children are suffering as a result of social sector cutbacks/policies and programmes and development initiatives that deprive communities and families of access to and control over land, forest and water resources they have traditionally depended on.

The negative fallout is visible: children are being deprived of even the scarce social benefits once available; they are displaced by forced and economic migration, increasing the number of children subsisting on the streets; more and more children are being trafficked within and across borders; and rising numbers of children are engaged in part- or full-time labour. (1)

Ground realities

  • With more than one-third of its population below 18 years, India has the largest young population in the world.
  • Only 35% of births are registered, impacting name and nationality.
  • One out of 16 children die before they attain the age of 1, and one out of 11 die before they are 5 years old.
  • 35% of the developing world’s low-birth-weight babies are born in India.
  • 40% of child malnutrition in the developing world is in India.
  • The declining number of girls in the 0-6 age-group is cause for alarm. For every 1,000 boys there are only 927 females -- even less in some places.
  • Out of every 100 children, 19 continue to be out of school.
  • Of every 100 children who enrol, 70 drop out by the time they reach the secondary level.
  • Of every 100 children who drop out of school, 66 are girls.
  • 65% of girls in India are married by the age of 18 and become mothers soon after.
  • India is home to the highest number of child labourers in the world.
  • India has the world’s largest number of sexually abused children, with a child below 16 raped every 155th minute, a child below 10 every 13th hour, and at least one in every 10 children sexually abused at any point in time.

Government policy on children

On November 20, 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). On January 26, 1990, the opening day of the session, 61 countries signed it. The CRC covers all children under the age of 18 years, regardless of sex, colour, language, religion or race. India ratified the CRC in 1992.

Several constitutional provisions protect children in India. Among them:

  • Article 15 affirms the right of the State to make special provision for women and children.
  • Article 24 provides that no child below the age of 14 shall be employed to work… in any hazardous employment.
  • Article 39 (e) of the Directive Principles of State Policy provides that children of tender age should not be abused and that they should not be forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength.
  • Article 39 (f) requires children to be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, and that childhood and youth be protected against exploitation and moral and material abandonment.
  • Article 45 of the Directive Principles of State Policy provides for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14.

Prior to the Fifth Five-Year Plan, the government’s focus was on child welfare through the promotion of basic minimum services for children. This culminated in the adoption of the National Policy for Children, in 1974.

The Fifth Five-Year Plan (1974-79) saw a shift of focus from welfare to development and the integration and co-ordination of services after the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) 1975.

The Sixth Five-Year Plan strengthened child welfare and development. It led to the spatial expansion and enrichment of child development services through a variety of programmes.

The focus of the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1992-97) shifted to human development through advocacy, mobilisation and community empowerment.

The Government of India declared its commitment to every child in the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1997-2002).

The Tenth Five-Year Plan advocated a convergent/integrated rights-based approach to ensure the survival, development, protection and participation of children. It set targets for children: all children to complete five years of schooling by 2007; reduction in gender gaps in literacy and wage rates by at least 50%, by 2007; reduction in Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) to 45 per 1,000 live births by 2007, and 28 by 2012; reduction of Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) to 2 per 1,000 live births by 2007 and to 1 per 1,000 live births by 2012; arresting the decline in the child sex ratio; and universalisation of the ICDS scheme.

The draft approach paper of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-2012) prepared by the Planning Commission emphatically stated that ‘Development of the child is at the centre of the Eleventh Plan’. While continuing with the rights-based approach to child development, the plan recognises the importance of a holistic approach, focusing both on outcomes and indicators for child development as well as macro-perspective trends and governance issues.

Despite these laws, policies and commitments, however, what is the actual situation for India’s children vis-à-vis health, education, early childhood care and protection?


The very survival of the Indian child is a matter of concern. Around 2.5 million children die in India every year, accounting for one in five deaths in the world, with girls being 50% more likely to die. (2) Eighty-seven children of every 1,000 born still have the probability of dying between birth and 5 years of age. According to a report on the state of India’s newborns, the health challenges faced by a newborn child in India are bigger than those experienced by any other country. (3) Although India’s Neonatal Mortality Rate (NMR) witnessed a significant decline in the 1980s (from 69 per 1,000 live births in 1980 to 53 per 1,000 live births in 1990), it has remained static since then (only dropping fourpoints from 48 to 44 per 1,000 live births between 1995 and 2000). (4)

Food insecurity: Malnutrition and starvation

One in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. (5) Child malnutrition is generally caused by a combination of inadequate or inappropriate food intake, gastrointestinal parasites and other childhood diseases, and improper care during illness. Is it not ironical that in a nation with soaring GDP rates and Sensex indices, marking India’s entry into the global market, children continue to die of malnutrition and starvation?

The major cause is lack of public health services in remote and interior regions of the country, poor access to subsidised healthcare facilities, declining State expenditure on public health, and lack of awareness about preventive child healthcare.

According to the Planning Commission, 50% of below the poverty line (BPL) families are out of the purview of the targeted public distribution system. The very method of identifying the poor using the official poverty line defined at an absolutely low level of income corresponding to the expenditure required to purchase the bare minimum of calories, is contentious. Therefore, in reality, many more people are living in food insecurity.

Ironically, the Supreme Court of India has had to intervene to ensure that children in this country get adequate and nutritious food -- the most basic of rights for all citizens to stay alive and healthy.

To be born a girl: Plummeting sex ratio

The very existence of the girl-child is under threat. Defying the normal male-female balance, the higher survival capacity of girl babies, and greater life expectancy of women to men prevalent in human populations, the female-male balance in India has been adverse to females for at least 100 years. The 1901 National Census recorded a female-male ratio of 972 to 1,000 males, for all ages. Virtually every subsequent census showed a decline. (6) 

While the overall female-male ratio for all ages rose slightly from the 1991 figure of 927 females per 1,000 males to 933 females per 1,000 males in 2001, the juvenile sex ratio in the 0-6 age-group fell from 945 girls per 1,000 boys to 927 girls per 1,000 boys. (7) This is a decline of 18 points in just one decade! The Government of India, in its report to the UN Committee on the rights of the Child (8) said: “Every year, 12 million girls are born -- 3 million of whom do not survive to see their 15th birthday. About one-third of these deaths occur in the first year of life and it is estimated that every sixth female death is directly due to gender discrimination.”

Sex-selective abortion, more commonly known as foeticide, and what appears to be a re-emergence of infanticide, is taking a heavy toll, even as neglect of ‘survivors’ of this weeding out process persists.

Unlike all the other social evils attributed to poverty, the killing of female foetuses through sex-selective abortion cannot be attributed to poverty and ignorance. Indeed, it is the economically affluent states of Punjab, Haryana, districts of Gujarat, and Delhi that have the dubious distinction of having more people who can pay for expensive tests to help choose male children over females. Census figures based on 2001 data from 640 cities and towns across 26 states and union territories reveal that posh metropolitan India, with 904 girls per 1,000 boys, has a lower sex ratio for children below 6 years than overcrowded slums where there are 919 girls per 1,000 boys. The capital city Delhi has 919 and 859 for slum and non-slum areas respectively. Clearly it is those who can “afford to choose,” who use the technology to do so.

Almost all government health policies seem to have an underlying family planning agenda. Health activists say that with its emphasis on population control, the Rural Health Mission is no different. Over the years it has become quite clear that if people are forced to limit the size of their families, they shall do so at the cost of the girl baby, even it means that they have to “import” brides from outside their states or communities.

Commenting on the serious decline in the 0-6 sex ratio in India, leading demographer Ashish Bose says that the government’s policies are all wrong. The two-child policy has got mixed up with female foeticide. Government slogans like ‘Beti ya beta, dono ek hain’ (‘Girl or boy, both are equal’) make little sense. And financial sops for couples having a girl-child make no dent in the traditional preference for sons in India. If India closes the gender gap between girls and boys aged 1-5 years, 1.3 lakh lives will be saved and, overall, the child mortality rate will go down by 5%.

There is no guarantee that the girl-child who escapes foeticide, infanticide and is in the 0-6 age-group will escape the cycle of deliberate neglect that may even result in death because she is less fed, less encouraged to explore the world, more likely to be handed jobs to do and given less healthcare and medical attention. Out-patient data from hospitals in northern Indian cities shows lower admissions of girl-children, and girls who are in a more serious condition than boys when brought for treatment. An August 2004 spot-check at one hospital showed 25,538 boy-children and 12,645 girl-children in the OPD records, 3,822 boy-babies as against 3,160 girl-babies born in hospital, and 1,954 boy-children admitted to a paediatric ward as compared to 1,091 girls. (9)

Elementary education

While enrolment levels propelled by the flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan show an increase, levels of retention in schools remain a matter of concern. There has been a marginal improvement in the percentage of students who stay in school until Class 5 -- from 61.2% to 62% -- but this is way below the global average of 83.3% (10). There is a sharp decline in the enrolment ratio at the upper primary level. Also, the dropout rate increases cumulatively as it proceeds towards higher levels. Although showing improvement, the enrolment of girls is still below that of boys. The dropout rate for girls too is higher. Children belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes continue to face discrimination in schools and have lower enrolment and higher dropout rates. Despite the promise of education for all, 46% of children from scheduled tribes and 38% from scheduled castes continue to be out of school, as against 34% in the case of others. (11) This is not surprising considering the discrimination that these children face at school. The same can be said of the discrimination faced by disabled children.

The Constitution of India fails to even recognise education as a ‘right’ for those aged 15-18 years. Many children drop out after the elementary level. Indeed, the system is designed to push children out of education -- there is a lack of adequate school infrastructure, the quality of education is poor, the educational system is gender-unfriendly, disabled-unfriendly, caste-discriminatory and violent because of a high degree of corporal punishment.

A Model Education Bill has been developed and circulated to the states for adoption into state law. There will thus be no central legislation on education, only state legislation since education is a state subject. If states decide to adopt the Model Education Bill as it is, they will be eligible for 75% assistance from the Centre for education programmes. But if they modify the Model Bill in their formulation of the state education law, they will only be eligible for 50% of central government assistance. The Model Education Bill is not available for public scrutiny, posing serious questions about the government’s accountability and transparency.

Child labour and right to education: A contradiction

India has the highest number of child labourers in the world.

  • Census reports clearly point to an increase in the number of child labourers in the country, from 11.28 million in 1991 to 12.59 million in 2001. (12)
  • Reports from the M V Foundation in Andhra Pradesh reveal that nearly 400,000 children, mostly girls between 7 and 14 years of age, toil for 14-16 hours a day in cotton seed production across the country. Ninety percent of them are employed in Andhra Pradesh alone. (13)
  • According to Yamina de Laet of the International Chemical, Energy and Mine Workers’ federation (ICEM), children aged 6-14 years represent 40% of the labour force in the precious-stone-cutting sector. (14)
  • Rescue operations in Mumbai and Delhi in 2005-2006 highlight the employment of children in zari and embroidery units.
  • Although the number of children employed in the agricultural sector, in domestic work, roadside restaurants, sweetmeat shops, automobile mechanic units, rice mills, Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) outlets and most such sectors considered to be ‘non-hazardous’ is unknown, there is ample evidence to suggest that more and more children are entering the labour force and are being exploited by their employers.

The existing law on child labour that allows children to work in occupations that are not part of the schedule of occupations that are considered harmful to children contradicts the right of every child to free and compulsory education. And yet no attempt is made to resolve this contradiction. How can children be at work and at school at the same time? Surely this means that any attempt to give them access to education will be second-rate, parallel non-formal education?

The Social Jurist, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights and M V Foundation have filed a joint PIL with the Supreme Court of India challenging the validity of the Child Labour Act in the wake of the constitutional guarantee to right to education for children in the 6-14 age-group. In the meantime, vide a notification in the official gazette dated October 10, 2006, the Centre has expanded the list of hazardous occupations banning employment of children under 14 years as domestic help or in restaurants and the entertainment industry.
The disabled child: Always on the periphery

Census 2001 reports that 2.19 crore (2.13%) of the total population of the country are persons living with disability, and that 1.67% of the total population within the age-group 0-19 years (46,38,26,702) are disabled (see table below).

Disabled population within the age-group 0-19 by type of disability, age and sex (Census 2001) 

Total disabled population



                  Type of disability

In seeing

In speech

In hearing

In movement







Disabled population in
0-19 age-group













Disabled children as per
cent of total population
in 0-19 age-group













Disabled children as per
cent of total disabled













Source: Census of India 2001: Table C20 India

Of all persons living with disability, 35.9% are children and young adults in the 0-19 age-group. Three out of five disabled children in the age-group 0-9 years are reported to be visually impaired. Movement disability has the highest proportion (33.2%) in the 10-19 age-group. This is largely true of ‘mental’ disability also. (15)

Barely 50% of disabled children reportedly reach adulthood, and no more than 20% survive to cross the fourth decade of life. (16) Although there is very little information regarding the nutritional status of children with disabilities, disabled children living in poverty are among the most deprived in the world. Those who suffer mental disorders are much worse off, as there is still very little recognition of the problem.

Poor enforcement of the Persons With Disabilities Act and the Mental Health Act means that disabled people in India continue to be discriminated against in terms of access to basic services and opportunities. There are few special services for disabled children. Paediatric wards at government hospitals are incapable of dealing with children with disabilities, particularly in terms of infrastructure and resources.

Government action

Over the last few years, the government has taken a number of measures related to children. The most important has been the setting up of a full-fledged Ministry of Women and Child Development as against the Department of Women and Development that used to function as part of the Human Resource Development Ministry. Among the policy and law initiatives that were undertaken was the formulation of the National Charter for Children 2003, the National Plan of Action for Children 2005, and enforcement of the National Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act 2006. However, the National Policy for Children 1974 has not been repealed, nor does the charter override it. Thus, the status of the charter is not very clear. The government announced the much-discussed and long-delayed National Plan of Action 2005 only in August 2005. Led by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the government has completed a study on child abuse in India and is in the process of drafting a law on Offences Against Children. It has also initiated the process of amending the present law on child marriage.

Parliament has recently passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Bill 2006, which enhances punishment for those involved in these practices, and people abetting or attending child marriages. It also declares all child marriages null and void. This is also the main criticism against the legislation that will come into force as a law applicable retrospectively – ie, all child marriages that have taken place in the past will be declared null and void and the status of children born out of such marriages will come under question.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2000 was amended in 2006 and the Central Model Rules in this regard are being formulated.

The Model Right to Education Bill is not available for public scrutiny/comment, as is also the case with the Offences against Children Bill. The Offences against Children Bill has drawn criticism based on drafts available through various sources. The first is that it is too vast in terms of the kind of offences it seeks to address under one umbrella legislation. The second is that, unlike the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) that extends to the whole of India, the proposed legislation keeps the State of Jammu and Kashmir out of its scope. The third, and most important, criticism is that since many of the offences dealt with under the proposed Bill are of a very serious nature, the criminality of those offences should be established through the main criminal law of the land, ie the Indian Penal Code and not through a social legislation. India already has a strong juvenile justice law to deal with social and reformatory aspects of a crime; that law could be strengthened further to ensure that human rights standards of child protection are met whilst rehabilitating a child victim. Moreover, both the Home Ministry and the Law Ministry are working on amendments in the Criminal Procedure Code, and many activists feel that this is the right time to seek appropriate amendments to ensure child-friendly legal procedures within the CrPC and the Indian Evidence Act.

The government has set up a National Coordination Group on the Rights of the Child for implementation of child rights in the country, and has instituted a Chair on the theme of Protection of Child Rights as part of the 10 Rajiv Gandhi Chairs in Contemporary Studies in central and state universities. These mechanisms, however, are not functional.

Recognising the importance of child budget analysis, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has institutionalised child budgeting and has included it in the new National Plan of Action for Children, 2005.

All of the above are important measures. However, what is required is a complete re-examination of the legal framework for children as whole, identification of gaps and reconciliation of existing anomalies within the law and the implementation of policies, programmes and schemes meant for children.

Only a recognition of children as individuals with rights can pave the way for future action. In the absence of this, all efforts will be sporadic, addressing only some symptoms and not the root cause of the problems that affect the children of this country.

End notes

  1. ‘Child Rights in the Global Week of Action’, concept paper prepared by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, April 14, 2005
  2. ‘Human Development Report’, 2005, UNDP, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
  3. ‘State of India’s Newborn’, 2004, prepared by the National Neonatology Forum in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, World Health Organisation (South East Asia Region), Unicef India, the World Bank and Saving Newborn Lives, Save the Children/US
  4. Ibid
  5. http://www.unicef.org/india/nutrition.html
  6. India Alliance for Child Rights (IACR), review note submitted at the September 17, 2004, Day of Discussion of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the issue ‘Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood’, CRC review note #1: ‘India’s Girl Child: Crisis of ‘Early Disposal’ (Declining Juvenile Sex Ratio – 0-6 years)’
  7. Census of India 2001,
  8. Convention on the Rights of the Child, India, First Periodic Report, 2001, Department of Women and Child Development, Government of India
  9. India Alliance for Child Rights (IACR), ‘India’s Girl Child: Early Childhood -- or Early Disposal? (Declining Juvenile Sex Ratio – 0-6 years)’, review note submitted to the September 17, 2004, Day of Discussion of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the issue ‘Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood’
  10. ‘2005 Education For All Global Monitoring Report’(UNESCO’s Education For All Development Index [EDI] for 2004)
  11. Census of India 2001
  12. Office of the Registrar General, India. Census of India 1991 and Census of India 2001, New Delhi
  13. HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, ‘Status of Children in India Inc’, 2005, page 169
  14. Trade Union World, Briefing. International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, ICFTU, October 2004, No 6, in ‘Status of Children in India Inc’, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, 2005, page 176
  15. Office of the Registrar General of India. Census of India 2001
  16. Dr (Brig) M L Kataria, ‘War against disability -- Fighting for the right of the child’, May 29, 2002,

(This backgrounder is based on a perspective paper on child rights by Enakshi Ganguly-Thukral, Bharti Ali and Saloni Mathur on www.infochangeindia.org, and Status of Children in India Inc, 2005, published by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007