What India Can Do for Malala

Kailash Satyarthi, the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is 60. For three decades, he has been a crusader against child labor in India. His co-winner is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who in 2012 was shot by the Taliban when she was 14.

I raise this because in India, 14 is the minimum age for children to be employed in defined “hazardous” occupations, including work in factories and in people’s homes. The constitutional guarantee on compulsory and free education follows a similar logic -- all children up to 14 are entitled to an education, which means they have to stay in school through eighth grade. After that, all bets are off.

It's well-documented that India has a serious child labor problem. But it also has a serious “legal” child labor problem. Children between ages 14 and 18 are in limbo, too young to be considered adults but old enough to be out of school and in low-paying, low-productivity jobs. The laws create a perverse incentive: The age when the state stops mandating education is also the age when children can find work. Unsurprisingly, 40 percent of India’s children drop out of school by eighth grade.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi often talks about the country’s demographic dividend. He has a point. India is one of the youngest nations in the world -- 66 percent of its people are younger than 35. However, if almost half of India’s children continue to drop out of school at 14, the dividend is more likely to be a demographic disaster.

Satyarthi is the first Indian-born winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. What better way to honor him than for the country to change its laws on child labor and the right to a free education. I imagine 17-year-old Malala, who put her life on the line to keep girls in school, would think age 18 is a good place to start.

Dhiraj Nayyar is a journalist in New Delhi. Trained as an economist, he has worked at the Financial Express, India Today and Firstpost.com. He is editor of Surviving the Storm: India and the Global Financial Crisis.

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