Sav­ing the child slaves

They’re sold by their fam­i­lies in In­dia to pay off debts or snatched from their homes by traf­fick­ers to spend ev­ery wak­ing hour work­ing in hor­rific con­di­tions. But one man is fight­ing to give them back their child­hood. Anthea Ay­ache re­ports

Friday - - Society Living Leisure -

Sun­light scorched the cor­ru­gated iron sheets piled hap­haz­ardly to form makeshift slum fac­to­ries. Far be­low in one of the many work­shop base­ments, boxes of fes­tive baubles sparkled, their kalei­do­scopic colours danc­ing across the low rick­ety walls, es­cap­ing through the scarce crevices, a mi­rage of free­dom falsely re­flected from the blink­ing neon strip over­head.

Glit­ter in­tended for fes­tive toys blan­keted the worn-out work­bench, mask­ing the tell­tale scars like snow. These elab­o­rate ‘hand­crafted’ dec­o­ra­tions des­tined for De­cem­ber’s twin­kling homes many miles away would not, how­ever, be bring­ing cheer to this dimly lit fac­tory cel­lar, nor to its small band of em­ploy­ees.

They were not a highly skilled team of adults en­dur­ing harsh con­di­tions for a de­cent salary. In­stead the work­force was 14 child labour­ers who were traf­ficked, forced to make dec­o­ra­tions for 15 hours a day, beaten and starved. But these chil­dren were the lucky ones, res­cued by a man on a mis­sion to stamp out child slav­ery and save In­dia’s mil­lions of child labour­ers.

The mal­nour­ished boys, be­tween the ten­der ages of 8 and 14, had been held cap­tive in filthy win­dow­less rooms in Delhi for al­most a year. Their eyes strained in the dark while their shard-in­jured fin­gers strug­gled to make the tiny glass trin­kets.

Liv­ing such a mis­er­able ex­is­tence, these boys are just a small win­dow into the world of In­dia’s traf­ficked chil­dren, mil­lions of who are ei­ther sold by their poverty-stricken fam­i­lies in re­turn for the mea­gre sums needed for sur­vival, loaned to un­scrupu­lous cred­i­tors to pay off fam­ily debts through labour or kid­napped, never to be seen again.

But these boys, re­ferred to by the me­dia as the Delhi 14, were the lucky ones. Their life of mis­ery and pain would have con­tin­ued had it not been for the ef­forts of Kailash Sat­yarthi, In­dia’s lead­ing child ac­tivist and founder of in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised hu­man-rights group Global March for Chil­dren.

He and his vol­un­teers along­side the Delhi task­force hit the fac­tory with an un­ex­pected early morn­ing raid, and de­spite ef­forts by their cap­tors to hide the chil­dren in a nearby win­dow­less cell that was barely big enough to fit one adult, all were res­cued.

Since then, all the boys have been through a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme and are back where they be­long – in school.

In­vis­i­ble yet ev­ery­where

The prob­lem of youth ex­ploita­tion is vast in In­dia, a coun­try with the largest num­ber of work­ing chil­dren in the world. Govern­ment sta­tis­tics claim there are 12 mil­lion child labour­ers in the coun­try, how­ever char­ity or­gan­i­sa­tions work­ing in the sec­tor say the real fig­ure is far higher and more likely to be around 50 mil­lion. Al­though a more mod­est es­ti­mate puts the fig­ure at 15 mil­lion.

Na­tion­wide, from the filthy city slum sweat­shops to the green ex­panses of ru­ral tea plan­ta­tions, the in­no­cent and voice­less toil la­bo­ri­ously and silently, iso­lated from all that lies out­side their world of work.

Across ur­ban and ru­ral cen­tres, chil­dren are forced to work re­lent­lessly in in­dus­tries from shoe mak­ing to gem cut­ting and in car­pet fac­to­ries to brick kilns where, as Sat­yarthi says, they re­ceive no pity from their masters.

“Small chil­dren of six, seven years and older are forced to work 14 hours a day without breaks. If they cry for their par­ents, they’re beaten se­verely, some­times hanged up­side­down from trees and even branded or burned with cig­a­rettes. They’re of­ten kept half-fed be­cause em­ploy­ers feel if they’re fed prop­erly, they will be sleepy and slow in their work. In many cases they’re not even per­mit­ted to talk to each other or laugh be­cause it makes work less ef­fi­cient. It’s real me­dieval slav­ery.’’

Al­though child and forced labour has his­tor­i­cally been re­served for In­dia’s agri­cul­ture sec­tor and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, the ar­chaic tra­di­tion has spread into ur­ban ar­eas like an in­fec­tious dis­ease. In the coun­try’s sprawl­ing cities, hid­den down the lit­tered al­leys of vast garbage-spew­ing slums, mil­lions of un­skilled chil­dren sit hunched over their work in ex­tremely haz­ardous en­vi­ron­ments.

De­prived of even the most rudi­men­tary train­ing, these youths carry out per­ilous tasks on a daily ba­sis. Some are forced to risk the

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