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Comparative Political Economy

Interpretations of child labor as an ingrained consequence of poverty, an impediment to genuine democracy and development, and a caste-based practice reinforced by deep-seated biases, inform the range of policy recommendations. The challenge of effective policy design echoes the paradox of India’s steady rise as an economic and technological powerhouse, despite the persistence of poverty and underdevelopment. Development and human rights-minded analyses of child labor as an economic phenomenon dominate the literature concerned with policy solutions. Economic-based research on bonded labor in India centers on the links between fertility, poverty, and access to education, while bearing in mind the policy options available to the government. The struggle emerges in the debate—which receives limited official policy attention—over whether to enforce the ban on child labor, attempt to curb it, or maintain the status quo. Economists attribute the persistence of bonded labor and child labor to a variety of factors: longstanding caste-based discrimination, inequality, a lack of educational opportunities, high fertility levels among poor Indians—overall, to poverty as a self-reinforcing cycle. Others challenge the position that child labor will be eradicated after poverty has been eliminated. As labor—the engine of the country’s increasing technological sophistication and growth—drives India toward a more equitable future, the state may gradually move away from its traditional roots and move in the direction of ensuring human rights protections for all citizens.