The ins and outs – The second in a 2-part series on child labour in the Indian subcontinent

Shoeshine boy
Shoeshine boy (© Flickr)

Working children are everywhere to be found in all of India’s major cities. They work mostly on the streets, peddling one thing or another, shining shoes or doing other menial tasks. In rural areas, millions of children work the land with their parents or as day labourers. According to some estimates, there over 50 million working children in the country. But why are so many kids, both boys and girls, forced to work, and how do some of them eventually manage to get a normal life? The second in a two-part series on child labour in the Indian subcontinent.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: February 16, 1994


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service.

Unfortunately, in India alone, we have 55 million children in servitude. These 55 million children lost their identity, their dignity, their childhood, their dreams and future and everything. So they are virtually slaves.

Working children, you see them everywhere here in Delhi and other major Indian cities too. They work mostly on the streets, peddling one thing or another, shining shoes or doing some other menial tasks. Thousands more resort to prostitution or begging to keep themselves and their families alive. In rural areas, millions of children work the land with their parents or as day labourers, like this teenager who began to work at the age of 6.

His name is Jamina Prassad, aged 15. He was working with his father and mother for quite a long time. They were bonded labourers. He was working as a labourer, carrying building materials and sand and bricks. EB: Did you realise that there was another life besides the life you were leading at the time? He never thought about it because he doesn’t even have a chance to think it over. So all along, he was working. EB: How many hours a day did you work? He was working more than 8 hours a day. EB: Did you ever go to school? He’s absolutely illiterate.

No one knows how many Jamina Prassads there are in India. According to some estimates, there are 14 million working children in the country. Others say it’s 44 million. Yet others put the figure at up to 100 million, that’s 1 child in 3 in India. But how do so many kids, both boys and girls, get involved in child labour, and how did Jamina Prassad and thousands others get out?

“The Ins and Outs”, the second in a two-part series on child labour in the Indian subcontinent. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Here in Delhi, you don’t need to look far to find child at work and you don’t need to look far to find out why these children, some as young as 5, 6 or 7 years old, have joined the labour force. While half of India’s population belongs to the upper and middle classes, the other half, the poor, are desperately poor. I’ve seen entire families eking out an existence on the streets, living, cooking and sleeping in makeshift huts on the sidewalks of busy streets. The noise is overpowering, the stench of exhaust fumes too, and the hygienic conditions, well, I spare you the details. These children compete for jobs and handouts with thousands of street children who have no parents or who have been so badly abused or neglected that they have simply run away and now try to fend for themselves on the margins of society. In rural areas, the poverty is the same or even worse. 80% of India’s working children live outside cities. They work on farms or are recruited to work in the carpet, glass and match industries, as well as other sectors. Kailash Satyarthi, the chairperson of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, a group which receives backing from the Dutch development aid organisation Novib, told me that parents are paid about 1000 rupees – that’s a little over $30 – to send their children to work, for instance, in the carpet industry. The money is considered a debt by the employers, a debt which the parents will never be able to pay off. The children become bonded, a polite word for slavery.

The recruitment process is that the middleman or the contractors of the carpet industry move around. They go to the villages, talk to the parents, that you send your children, take a small amount of money – that could be between 500 and 1000 rupees for one child – but these parents never sold the children. They were told that your child would be able to earn a good amount of money regularly. He will earn 1000 rupees a month. So you can pay it off. But whatever money you are taking from us right now, it would be a debt and you can pay it off. No problem. And your child will continuously send you a regular amount of money. There will not be any restrictions on freedom of movement. Whenever you wanted to meet him, you can come. And whenever you wanted to invite him, he can come back. The children are lured away from their parents sometimes 300 or 400 miles. So once the children join the work, then they lose their freedom. In many cases, the children don’t speak the local language. So they become a kind of voiceless animals. A human being is reduced to a voiceless animal. They were beaten up. They were tortured. They can’t communicate with their fellow workers. In many cases, they were hanged upside down from the trees and branded with red hot iron rods. If a 7 or 8-year-old boy cries for his mother to go back to the mother’s place, he was beaten up and poked with a cigarette. The young girls are raped by the master. There is no law at all. It’s jungle law. In many cases, we have found that the children are compelled to work for more than 18 hours a day. But normally, no child works for less than 12 hours a day. So 12 to 18 hours a day is a normal workday for these children. There’s no holiday, no Sunday, nothing. They were given very rough quality of food, just for survival and nothing, and never allowed to even see their parents. If the parents come to take them back, the parents are kicked off, beaten up and told: since you have borrowed some amount of money, you have to pay it off. If the father is able to arrange that amount of money, he was told that you have to give four times of that because we have spent a lot of money on the child. So it’s a kind of vicious circle, endless circle. So this is a dark den of slavery where the child can never come out. In that situation, the parents always struggle to get the child back. But there is always a nexus between the police and the bonded child labour keepers. So it’s impossible for these poor, illiterate, ignorant parents to get any help from the government. So this is a pity.

The Indian government has passed a series of acts to protect working children, the latest one being the 1986 Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, which is aimed at preventing children under the age of 14 from working in hazardous industries. It also regulates the working conditions of children. But especially in rural areas, there are powerful land owners, businessmen and politicians who are all too willing to ignore the laws. In many cases too, local authorities aren’t even aware that the new child labour act was passed 8 years ago. Either they haven’t received a copy of the act, they’re unable to read it because it’s in English or they simply aren’t interested. And as long as that’s the case, says Kailash Satyarthi, the laws won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.

These laws and constitutional guarantees are openly violated because of a lack of political will. You know, the children, poor children, don’t have voting rights. They cannot affect the poll equation, but the people who keep them in slavery, they are powerful people. They continuously give money to the political parties, and they can also influence the voting pattern. So that’s why they always have some relation with the political parties. So in that case, there’s no government, no political party to fight willingly for them for implementation of the laws.

So working children are basically left to fend for themselves. But once children get in the labour force, how can they get out? Joseph Gathia, the head of the Centre of Concern for Child Labour, n organisation which is also being supported by the Dutch development aid group Novib, has managed over the past few years to get 200 children out of the lock-making industry and into schools.

In the beginning, our workers, our colleagues went and talked to the community in a group. Very few parents showed interest. Many of them said: oh, it is not possible. We talked to the children. They said: well, it depends on my parent. I want to study, but what can I do? So taking clue from the children’s voice, we again went back to the community and told the parents: look, suppose you get enough resources to send your child to the school, will you send him? You don’t have desire to send him? And some say: oh yes, we want to send him but what to do? We don’t even have money to pay for their fees. So OK. Suppose we pay the fees. Oh yeah, then we are willing. Slowly then one by one, they started coming. It was eye opening for us that the first such child that was withdrawn was with the help of a woman. She said yes, I want to educate my child. So if you can pay his fees, I’m willing to send my child and withdraw from the work. When she withdrew, we told others: look, here is a poor woman with less resources, yet she has the courage to defend the future of her child. You men, you cannot do anything about it? Then they also came out. So this is how the process started. But when you are doing this thing, first rumour was spread by the employers – well, they will only do for 3 or 4 months. Later on, they will forget about it. That was a very big problem before us because that certainly happens also. So what we did, we printed a form giving a pledge that this is the project. This is what we are going to do. And this is what is our commitment. And we printed it in the local language, gave it to our workers and said disseminate it massively in the community. So when the community read about that and said, yes it is so, then they also started a discussion. Then they went to their own community leaders. Then at that time, we called a meeting of community leaders, said: look, we have given this pamphlet to the people. We have also got the message and this is our programme. You can come and see us. You see our sincerity for three months. If you feel that we are failing in our commitment, we are not providing education, if we are not giving the stipend which is due or if we are not looking after the child, then you can withdraw the child. So this trial and error method was tried first. Another rumour was spread by the employers: well, look, you see, after a year, they will take the money from you. They are now paying you the money. They will take the money after one year. Now that was another mind-boggling problem for us. Then we said, now we have to really tackle it properly. So we made a slide and showed it in the cinema hall. Cinema halls are still very popular. So we then showed slides in the cinemas, that this is the scheme, and at this day, there is going to be an open meeting. And we are also calling the district officials. We invite community leader and any parent, any citizen can come and participate in this meeting. There was a very big meeting. 2 or 3000 people came for that meeting. There we read out what is our commitment, our programme and also the district officials were present there, and they also said they think the children should be withdrawn and this is now very much in line with what the government is thinking. I think taking help from the local authorities was a very good step because that was a kind of bridging factor. But yet the difficulties are not yet over. Sometimes the employers go to the parents: OK, you are getting only 50 rupees under the project. We will give 100 rupees for the child per month. Now two children like that went also back. Then we went to them, and also to the parents. We said we have no objection. After all, it is your child. But you think that in the coming years, no citizen or no person can survive even in the unskilled jobs if he or she doesn’t know some little reading and writing. Then they said “oh no, we are not going to go for any written job, so why should we study?” I side fine,” what work are you doing?” “Here, I’m doing packing work. I am putting the locks in the boxes.” “How many locks do you put in one day?” “About 100.” “I said no, no. You say the exact number.” “I don’t know. I don’t know exact number.” “Why you don’t know?” “Well, sometimes I forget to count.” “This is the reason why we want you to learn the numbers. How you are paid?” They said, “oh we are paid on the basis of contract.” “OK, if you are paid on the basis of contract, how do you calculate your wages? At the weekend?” “Oh, my master tells me this is the wage and I accept it.” “But suppose he cheats you, what to do?” “Oh, that I have never calculated myself.” “This is the reason why we want you to study, so you get a basic knowledge which is very essential, even when you grow up, it is essential.” “I said, OK, at what age are you going to marry your son?” “As soon as he can earn a little bit more, 16, 17.” They marry at a very early age. I said, “at that time, he will need a ration card because the poor people get a subsidised ration. On that form, he will have to fill in his name. If he is illiterate, he will have to go to somebody else. Will it not be shameful thing?” “No, sometimes you do take help.” But I said, “suppose he gets a wife who knows how to read and write. And your son is illiterate. What will you feel?” “Well, in that case, I want him to study.” You know, these are the kind of human angles which we taken and convinced them. By and large, I think that the method of persuasion and realising them what is good for them in the long run is the key. If we simply say “oh, send your child for the study”, they will not listen. But this concern for the future, what is better for them in the future, I think that is the principle we have followed.

But often the art of persuasion and of telling a good yarn just isn’t enough. Children who are bonded cannot get out. They are the virtual slaves of their employers or owners. Their parents can only get them out by repaying the employer the debt they contracted, something which for  all intents and purposes they will never be able to do. To free these child slaves, Kailash Satyarthi told me, the South Asian Coalition of Child Servitude organises and carries out well-planned raids.

We have identified certain industries, certain occupations where child servitude is rampant. For example, carpet industry is one of them, glass industry, then brass, leather, stone quarries, brick kilns, match and fireworks making industry. We have a large number of dedicated activists, volunteers working all over the country, and they move around and find out where the children are engaged in slavery. Then they go and try and build up some contact with the children themselves. In the beginning, the children never say that they are child labourers, child slaves. They are made so much afraid that they never come out with the truth. They say, oh, we belong to this man. He’s our maternal uncle or uncle or even father. So they never say that they are engaged as slaves, as they were taught and made to say. EB: How old are these children? Most of these children are 7 or 8 years. But beginning from 6 years, sometimes even less, 5 years. But normally from 6 years to 14 years. Once we get the confidence, then we contact their parents. Then we try to establish the link between the parents and the children. And in most of the cases, the parents want the children to get back. They might have tried several times, but they were not allowed to take back the children. So they can’t go anywhere to seek help. Then we go and try to convince the master in some cases. But in many cases, when we know that the master is a man who will never do, who will never liberate them easily, then we have to approach the court of law. In many cases, the parents of the children or the adult family members of the children approach our local activist and local offices. Sometimes they write letters to me or come to Delhi directly if they come to know through any source. Then we send our activists to reconfirm whether this is true, whether the child is really in slavery or not. And secondly it is also necessary if we go and rescue the children to know the geography of the village, the whole situation of the village. So we send our activists, but never disclosing their identity. They always pretend to be some doctor or some teacher or something like that, social worker. In most of the cases, we go and conduct the raids without informing anybody. We make the plan how to go without informing anyone, and suddenly get into the situation and find the children, and we ask the children to go along with us. It is of course a very risky operation because within no time, the entire village an get there and attack us. Several times, our activists were attacked while rescuing the children physically. So within no time, we ask the children to pack up whatever they have, and then we ask them to come into our vehicles, and we rescue them within a couple of minutes’ time, and bring them back.

The South Asia Coalition on Child Servitude then takes the children back to their families. But the children can also come here to Ibrahimpour, about 20 kilometres north of Delhi. The coalition, with the backing of the Dutch development aid organisation Novib and other aid groups, has established a retreat here, the Mukti Ashram. It’s quite a large compound with thatched room dormitories, work sheds and a dining hall. Even though it’s about half an hour away from the centre of Delhi, it’s a different world here. It’s quiet and restful. Since the ashram was established two years ago, Yedunandan, one of the people involved in the South Asia Coalition on Child Servitude told me over 300 boys, most of them illiterate, have come here for three month periods.

This ashram is basically a transit camp for the released bonded children. In the ashram, they are given vocational training, like tailoring, carpentry, weaving and building. The idea behind this training is to make them self-confident, and when they get back to their respective villages, they’ll be able to earn their livelihood without any hindrance. EB: There are about 20 kids between the age of 10 and 20 who come here for three months. What else do they learn besides some type of practical skills? We are giving them social education, the background about our country, the culture, the heritage, as well as the happenings all over the world. Our basic idea is to make them fully aware of what is happening in this world, how he or she can be a good citizen of this country. We are giving them basic education in the ashram just to enable them to read and write. If at all they have got a chance, they can jolly well continue their education, so that they can shape their future life.

The slogan is “long live India, long live Mukti Ashram. Give up drinking and break all the bottles of alcohol.” EB: The bottles of alcohol need to be broken because there’s a lot of alcoholism. Alcohol, yes, and all shops which are selling this liquor should be abolished, and make the life full of use.

And a new purpose in life is one of the things these kids and teenagers discover during their stay in the Mukti Ashram. I visited this place six weeks ago for the first time, and the changes in the kids have absolutely been enormous. In fact, I really shouldn’t call them children anymore, even though many of them are very small for their age because of poor nutrition and bad working conditions. In this six-week period, they’ve grown enormously. They’re more confidence, express themselves better, smile, in fact, they look happy.

His name is Arun. He’s aged 20 and he belongs to the central India, Madhya Pradesh. EB: How old were you when you started working and how long did you work? He started his work as a labourer at the age of 7 years. Three years, he was working as a bonded labourer. EB: How many hours a day did you work? He was working around 12 hours a day. He starts his work at around 6 in the morning, and he has half an hour break for lunch. EB: Was the work difficult? He says it was not a very pleasant one, but because of the circumstances at home, because he has a large family to support, he was forced to work. EB: Do your parents work? They are working as labourers in his village. It is only because of his poverty at home that compelled him to do this work. He says he was under pressure from his employer. He has to undergo a lot of difficulties there. Sometimes he has to go without food. There is no proper rest, and he was not paid properly. Wages were very, very meagre. Sometimes he may get it, he may not get it. There was no guarantee. But still he didn’t lose hope. The person who released him from bondage, he told him about the existence of this Mukti Ashram. He told this boy that he would be given good training like carpentry and tailoring, and he will be well looked after here and he will get proper social education. And that is why he decided to come over to Delhi and stay in the Mukti Ashram. EB: You’ve been here for almost three months now. What have you learned? He says he learned tailoring. Besides that, he says he learned the basic things in the life, how to behave, mingle with people, and he got social awareness. He wants to stand on his own legs.

A good deal of the young people’s time is spent learning a trade, like carpentry or learning how to use a loom or sew.

His name is Muliher (sp?). He hails from Raipur in Andhra Pradesh. That is southern India. He was a bonded labourer for some time. Now he’s here. He says he’s very happy to be associated with Mukti Ashram, and during his short tenure here, the most important thing he learned is how to love each other. And he learned tailoring here. And he wants to buy a machine in his own village, and he wants to start a new lease of life.

The kids who go through the Mukti Ashram are given a new lease on life. In fact, the formula has been so successful that the South Asia Coalition against Child Servitude plans to build an adjacent compound for girls this year. The teenagers I met will soon be going back to their villages to pass on the message of Mukti Ashram.

Our main motto is to liberate the last boy and girl from the clutches of social evil, that is the bonded labour system. I hope with the mounting pressure, the government will be forced to abolish bonded labour system from India.

Many non-governmental agencies involved in the battle to eliminate child labour also believe that the issue is closely linked to poverty. Yet they advocate a go-slow approach to abolishing child labour. They argue that alternatives must be provided to parents and children, and legislation should be introduced to get children out of hazardous occupations and improve their working conditions. Realistically, they say, it will take at least a century to eliminate child labour, maybe even longer. India’s leading child rights activist disagrees. Swami Agnivesh, the chairman of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, called last month for a boycott of goods and services involving child labour. He’s launching a national campaign aimed at middle class consumers to convince them to join the fight against what he describes as a crime against humanity. He has the full support of Joseph Gathia of the Centre of Concern for Child Labour.

I think our objective as civil society should be to eliminate child labour. For example, I have gone through the history of Africa. I have gone through the history of the United States of America. I have seen in our own freedom struggle, there were times when the people have even started in the very beginning in 1856, 1880 “no, we cannot win freedom from British people because they are very strong. We cannot abolish slavery.” But today we are free. The same thing was told to the Americans. “Oh, we cannot get freedom from Britain, but they won freedom. The same thing is happening in Africa. South Africa is a living example. People never thought that they would get liberty, but today the process of liberation is there. So we have to have the higher objective for the society, though in practice humans will always be lower. But we cannot place the objectives of society at the lower level, and then again still lower. If that was the case, then Europe would not have achieved literacy. When the Bible came in the form of printing, everybody was aghast. But slowly people started reading Bible. They knew what is there. Before that, there was euphoria “oh, we cannot understand Bible”, but today everybody understands Bible. The same way, today there is a fear that we cannot abolish child labour. But if we do not aim at that level, then no employer, no government will move forward. So we have to set up an example in that direction and work towards it.

“The Ins and Outs” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Mark Eijlers. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.