Child Slavery – India’s Achilles’ Heel

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Child slavery is a constant presence in the world's fastest growing democracy. Is India's growth story scarred with child labour?

On a dusty afternoon at the busy, noisy streets approaching the Secunderabad Railway Station in India, we met a woman. With a baby dangling on one arm and a scarf tied around the head, she looked like a nursing mother.

“My child is suffering. I have given her medicines. But, her health is getting worse. I have to take her to the hospital. Can you spare some money?” she pleaded.

When we asked her about what happened to the baby, she pulled out a plastic bag full of medicines and said that she has been giving them to the baby. But, she was not sure about what the exact illness was. Vexed with our questions, she huffed and quickly started soliciting other passengers rushing around the railway station.

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We met three other women as well – Kotamma, Mariamma, and Durgamma. All of them had the same look (that of a nursing mother with a dangling baby) and the same story to tell – they come from a town called Guntur, and that they have no other choice but to beg – so that they could take their child to the hospital. Their child is a bait.

Covered in dirty, ragged cloth, their faces exposed to the burning sun, the babies, barely months old, are almost always sleeping – or are they drugged?

This is not an isolated incident. It is a common sight in India, the world’s fastest growing economy. Across India’s bustling cities, babies are bait for begging and children crouch at traffic signals, markets, and temples, seeking alms. Over 300,000 children are drugged, beaten and forced to beg ever day. Children are maimed, their eyes and face burnt with acid and their limbs amputated to elicit greater sympathy and alms. As revealed by a CNN-IBN investigation, some qualified doctors agree to amputate a child’s limbs for less than $200, so that they can be left to beg. In some cases, children are victims of organ trade.

The fastest growing economy is also a haven for multi-million dollar child trafficking cartels. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, on an average over one hundred thousand children go missing every year. According to the Indian National Human Rights Commission, up to 40,000 children are abducted in India every year, of which at least 11,000 remain untraced. Many of them are trafficked to different states in India, sexually exploited, pushed into criminal activities and forced to work long hours in sub-human conditions.

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A few minutes from the Secunderabad Railway Station, we met twelve-year-old Aslam. For the past two years, he has been working at Boston Café – sweeping, cleaning and selling tea. His father, a farmer, could not afford to send him to school. His family was so poor that they could not afford to feed him. An agent brought him from Bihar to Secunderabad and left him here to live and work – night and day. Aslam was enslaved to the Boston Café at the age of ten.

With over 18 million slaves, India, the fastest growing economy in the world, is home to the largest number of enslaved people in the world – at least five times more than that of any other country in the world. Many of those enslaved are children from poor and deprived backgrounds.

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The Indian constitution provides for safe, secure and healthy upbringing through various provisions; Article 15(3) enables the state to make special provisions for children, Article 24 prohibits child labour and hazardous employment of children, Article 39(f) directs the state in its policy towards a child’s well-being, Article 39(c) provides that children should not be subject to abuse and should be given opportunities to develop in a healthy manner, Article 45 makes provisions for free and compulsory education for children.

The reality, though, is rather different. Weak enforcement, societal apathy (perpetual denial of its existence), and dire poverty perpetuate atrocities on children, in direct contravention of international treaties that India is bound by.

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The new controversial Child Labour Law passed by the Indian Parliament bars children younger than 14 from working in jobs that are defined as ‘Hazardous’. However, a provision says they may work after school hours and on holidays in the sports or entertainment industry or in family enterprises.

Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of what constitutes ‘family’. This is generally abused and under-aged children are regularly employed by unscrupulous employers in industries like diamond cutting, scavenging, metal cutting and brick-kilns. Many often end up in domestic servitude. Much of India’s child slavery is hidden in the nether, disguised as growth.

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India, the fastest growing economy and the ‘largest democracy in the world’ also has the largest number of children in the world, constituting over 19% of the world’s child population.

The UNICEF estimates that there are over 10.2 million working children, enslaved by poverty and destitution. This is a country where millions of children have lost their childhood, pouring sweat and blood to escape the shackles of poverty.

Entrapped and enslaved, their lost childhood continues to power the engine of the ‘fastest growing economy’ to grow faster and faster, while the fastest growing economy continues to suck the life blood out of them.

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India, the world’s fastest growing economy also stands witness to an unprecedented abuse of child rights – every single day of the year. With child beggary and slavery enshrined as part of its national consciousness, Mother India watches passively as millions of her children are exploited and enslaved. India, the child slaving super power, hides her national shame in the name of growth and continues to climb up the world ladder. With children begging on the streets and forced to work in sub-human conditions, the world’s fastest growing economy hangs her head in shame.

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For India to truly claim its place in the world as the fastest growing economy, it needs to enforce its laws against child slavery and beggary. Without effective enforcement, claims of growth are mere posturing and chest thumping, where the future of millions of children is scarred by exploitation, iniquity, and servitude to their slave masters.

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