The Scourge Of Child Slavery In India

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With over 60 million child slaves, India's growth story is void and meaningless till the problem is tackled head-on.

India is the world’s sixth largest economy by GDP. It is also the fastest growing economy in the world. This economic success, in part, emerges from and continues to grow from a horror story that haunts the nation – child slavery. Over 60 million children work in hazardous conditions as child slaves in the world’s fastest growing economy.

Fine silk production, often purchased by rich and affluent sections of the society, is a case in point. A 1996 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report exposed the reality of India’s finest silk. Children, employed for their small hands, were put to work pulling silk off the cocoons of silk worms. They did so by dipping their hands in boiling water, a part of the process to extract silk from the worms.

In the 1990s, Kanchipuram, a city in Tamil Nadu, used up to 50,000 child slaves in the silk industry. Consequently, it was bestowed with the sobriquet – the ‘city of child slaves’.

A 2003 follow-up report by HRW detailed the children’s condition:

From immersion in scalding water and handling dead worms, reelers’ hands become raw, blistered, and sometimes infected… Anesha K., eleven years old, started working when she was nine and had been at an NGO-run residential school for four months when we interviewed her.

She showed us lumpy scars on her hands and explained: ‘I didn’t like working because my hands would get infected. I got holes in my hands because I put them in the hot water and then they got infected. I couldn’t eat. I had to eat with a spoon.’ Anesha K.’s shins, ankles, and feet were covered with burn scars from boiling water.

For many years, officials in Tamil Nadu didn’t want to talk about the city of child slaves. The ancient city of Kanchipuram was instead known as the city of silk, whose weavers spun the most expensive and sought after silk saris in the country, perhaps the world.

Kanchipuram’s child slaves are but just a fraction of the nationwide total. In 2001, more than 12 million children between the age of five and 14 were working in India. By the 2011 Census, this number had more than halved with four and a half million employed as child labourers. But these are government figures; NGOs estimate that up to 60 million children work as child labourers in India.

Image: Biswarup Ganguly/ Creative Commons

Child labour comes in many different forms. From families employing their children in the family business to traffickers enslaving kids as ‘bonded labourers’, child labour puts children at physical and mental risk. Its consequences range from depression, to feelings of worthlessness. To compound matters, a study found that child labourers tend to grow up to become low-wage earners; with a higher likelihood that their offspring will also be forced to work.

Child labour in India is often justified under flimsy pretexts. Poverty is its biggest cause, but as Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi pointed out in 2013, it’s also the outcome.

About 215 million children [globally] are engaged as child labourers whereas 200 million adults the world over are without jobs. India as a case in point has 65 million jobless adults and correspondingly almost 60 million child labourers according to NGO estimates. Ironically most of the unemployed adults are parents of these very child labourers.

As to the debate over whether children have a right to work, Satyarthi pointed out that those making this case almost always give their children the highest possible education.

For the 50,000 odd child labourers of Kanchipuram in 1996 (which HRW later called a conservative estimate), it’s a childhood that has by now been lost. 20 years have passed since the lid first broke on the shady truth behind Kanchipuram’s silk. But we don’t know what happened to the thousands of children. All we know is that in the state of Tamil Nadu alone, about as many still remain enslaved as bonded labourers. A generation of child slaves grew up to be replaced by another.

Progress was slow. It is such a common practice to employ children despite it being illegal, that in 2004, government officials had to vow not to employ child slaves in their department.

A Supreme Court order in 1997 reminded state governments that a law existed on child labour – the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. It ordered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to supervise the implementation of this law in each state. And it directed that employers caught using child labour had to pay a fine of Rs. 20,000 into a fund to be used solely for the benefit of said child.

But as the HRW report in 2003 made clear, implementation remained lax. A PhD thesis from 2005 also corroborates a sense of bureaucratic indifference to child labour. It points out that the silk industry in Kanchipuram was over 500 years old, and evidence of child slavery (along caste lines) existed in ancient India as well. It’s not surprising then, that over time, apathy built up.

For child labour is extremely visible on the streets of India.

The Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) NGO estimates there to be at least 4.3 million child labourers in India, as per official records. Unofficially, to count those who ‘work’ for their families and family members, that number alone is 22.2 million. Those who work from their homes or in households are difficult to track down and are considered a ‘hidden‘ phenomenon. This family-owned child labour is the latest incarnation of slavery – and the most recent amendment of the Child Labour Act legalizes it.

Working for one’s family can be on extraordinarily brutal grounds. For one, because families are often trapped into debt bondage to external employers. Whatever work they do, they do for another – who gives them no leeway. Children are but a form of mortgaging on a debt – and have no choice but to willingly submit to enslavement by the family employer.Unsurprisingly, the weaker section of society – low-castes and tribals – are the most common victims of debt slavery.

Life after labour

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India has no shortage of laws and regulations to prevent child labour. These include Articles 23 and 24 of the Indian Constitution, the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act of 1956, the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act of 1976 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 (amended in 2016).

But what happens when the law is implemented? Often, working children end up on the streets – where they are the mercy of criminal elements, and ironically, the police. A 1994 HRW report highlighted the detentions, beatings, and extortions that street children face from the police.

The law recognises two types of children – those in the conflict of law, and those in need of care and attention. Child labourers fall under the latter. The Juvenile Justice (Care And Protection Of Children) Act, 2015, recommends that working children be either sent on probation to live with their parents or with a ‘fit person’ or to a ‘special home’ – as well as mandating de-addiction treatment and education if needed.

The problem is that government juvenile homes often club children with criminal backgrounds with those in need. The result is that up to 20 children can share a room, often with juveniles who have a history of sodomy, violence and drug addiction. A 2013 Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) report called these home’s ‘India’s hell-holes’ in its report – and detailed how children are sexually abused, beaten, tortured and even made as child labourers (again) by the very authorities entrusted to care for them.

A 2016 Harvard University study investigated the rehabilitation and reintegration capacities of India’s rescued children – finding bleak results. In its sample, more than 96 percent of cases were closed within four months, with the majority of children having no access to short-term or long-term rehabilitative care. This study highlights systemic problems with India’s set-up; from a lack of human resources to a general breakdown of policies designed to help children (for example, most children were aware that they were entitled to Rs. 20,000 from their previous employer – but very few actually received this.)

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has laid out a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for police to follow when rescuing children. But is the problem that our mindset tolerates cruelty towards children?

In enacting an ad-hoc policy towards children, India risks worsening the situation of its already-abandoned children.

Improving the options of child labourers is one of the few proven successful methods of tackling child slavery. Access to education is key. Kailash Satyarthi estimated that it would take $40 billion to be able to educate each and every child. Appealing to the G-20 leaders who are meeting in Hamburg now, he points out that the number is one-fiftieth of the amount spent on defense by all these nations (and less than India’s own defense budget).

India’s child slavery problem cannot be ignored any longer – in the ten years between each Census, a generation of child labourers become adults and are no longer candidates for what poor rehabilitation there is. Every generation of child labour is the present letting down the future. We need to study the evidence and implement child rehabilitation. Growth and development can only be meaningful when we can come up with a state that is caring, and not hostile, to its children.


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1 Comment

  • 10 years ago, my Oxfordshire village raised £16,000 to fund a revolving loan project for young people who had been in debt bondage slavery in the carpet industry in Jharkhand. Integrated Village Development Trust delivered the project through an Indian NGO called AID. Its effect shows that child slavery is not only bad for the children themselves but for the Indian economy too. Once these young people were trained, given apprenticeships or loans to set up small enterprises like tyre and battery replacement, they thrived. They even paid back the interest-free loans so that others can be helped and the most successful employed other teenagers who had also suffered child slavery.

    Child slavery is a blight on the reputation of India but it also holds back enterprising young people who can grow the Indian economy.

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