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The problem of child labour intensifies in UP's carpet belt

By Rashme Sehgal

The campaign against child labour began in the carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh in the late-1970s. Three decades on, what has changed? Our correspondent travelled through the Mirzapur-Bhadohi belt, where children are hard at work making tufted carpets for the global market

Recent statistics released by civil society organisations associated with the Campaign Against Child Labour show that there are over 150 million children working as child labour in India. This figure has been arrived at on the basis of the number of children out of school and families living in destitution.

What is more alarming is the recently-convened Social Audit of Child Labour's revelation that the number of children working in the bidi, carpet, knitwear, bangle, gem polishing and leather sectors is steadily rising. The situation is worse in the agricultural sector: children are being co-opted into animal rearing, forestry, sowing and harvesting, at prices much below the minimum wage stipulated by the government.

Travelling extensively through the Mirzapur-Bhadohi carpet belt only served to confirm my fears. This belt was at the forefront of the crusade against child labour, launched during the late-'70s. Activists like Swami Agnivesh, Shamshad Khan and Kailash Satyarthi conducted several raids, rescuing thousands of children working as bonded labour. The children were being forced to live in concentration-camp-like conditions by an unholy nexus of agents and ruthless contractors, and were working 12-18 hours a day in the kaleem trade.

Their crusade brought the problem to international focus. Thousands of children were subsequently rescued by government officials and taken back to their villages.

Three decades on, however, the wheel has turned full circle. If anything, the problem of child labour in this carpet belt has become more acute.

I drive into the village of Ghosain, home of the traditional Persian carpet. At the very entrance of the village, a weaver has hung two screens on which several children are working on a tufted carpet. Their mother sees me walk towards her house. She pushes the children into a back room. "Kids refuse to sit still; the minute their father takes a break from work, they insist on playing around with his tools," she says by way of explanation. She is middle-aged, her face tired and worn.

But it's quite obvious these children are working, not 'playing'. Even from a distance I can see their hands moving with expert skill. They were not working on a loom to make the traditional woven carpet that has made Mirzapur famous. They were working on a tufted carpet, using a mechanical device to 'tuft' small pieces of wool against a large framed canvas on which a white cloth is stretched. A design has been etched on the canvas and the children have been taught to strictly follow the pattern. Tufted carpets are much quicker to make, and sell at much lower prices.

Mohammed Ansari, a sub-contractor for a large carpet firm, points out: "The traditional looms in our village are lying idle. A tufted carpet can be completed in as little as six days. Carpet prices in the international market have crashed because of a glut in production. Woven carpets from Iran, China and even Nepal are more in demand than the Indian variety. Since tufted carpet prices are much lower, foreign buyers have begun ordering these carpets in larger numbers. They can use them for a couple of years and then discard them."

Carpet manufacturers prefer using child labour to make these carpets because they pay them much less than they would pay adults. Explains Ansari: "Most of these boys take two to three months to master the craft of tufted carpets. Weaving carpets, on the other hand, is a skill that takes many years to acquire. Once the worker has got the hang of making a tufted carpet, he can churn out five to ten carpets a month, which is good business."

The two boys who had been hurried into a back room were working with expert ease. It was obvious they had been at the job now for several months, a fact that's corroborated by Ansari.

I move on to Baimi village in Lalganj block. Again, while the looms here are silent, the 'yackety-yak' of metal contraptions tufting wool onto large off-white screens resounds through the village. Here again, it is boys between the ages of 13 and 16 who are doing all the work.

An elder weaver, who goes by the name of Abbas Alvi, scoffs at the tufted carpets. But then he adds with a sigh: "We go to bed hungry. Our sons who have mastered weaving are not being given work because they refuse to work at wages as low as Rs 30 per day. Thousands of them are migrating to Surat to seek employment in the polyester mills. Instead, these children brought from outside are being given employment."

Weaver Mushtaq Mohammed, who owns two looms, says: "We are all part of a large, joint family, and three of the children at the loom are my uncle's children." When questioned further, one of the boys gives the game away. "I was brought here from Darbanga. I've been here for the last three years and have not had any contact with my parents since," he says. "Are you related to Mushtaq bhai," I ask. The boy does not reply.

Then Mushtaq butts in. "His father comes here every eight-nine months to collect his earnings. These days, the manufacturers no longer give us any advance either in cash or in terms of raw material. Obviously, children will have to contribute to make ends meet," he says.

The influx has created additional problems for local civil society organisations handling the problem. Shamshad Khan, president of Centre for Rural Education and Development Action (CREDA), says: "The influx of child labour into this region has created the same situation that was prevailing in the '80s." Khan runs several rehabilitation centres where children who were forcibly brought into the carpet trade spend a few months before joining regular schools. "Several districts in Bihar and Bundelkhand are the main catchment areas that are providing the labour for the carpet and bidi industries. Surely, in the last 30 years, the government should have set up a network of schools to prevent these kids becoming easy fodder for the dalals (middlemen)," he asks. Khan is equally critical of the local administration that, he believes, has failed to do anything substantial to deal with the problem of child labour. "A strict local administration could have made all the difference. If they had conducted raids, as we activists used to do earlier, this trend would have been reversed. Unfortunately, there has been a slackening on all fronts," he says.

When asked about the large number of children working in the area, district magistrate Umesh Mittal sounds nonplussed. "We have so many schemes for the poor. No one can claim the poor are not being looked after..." Mittal could not recollect the number of children pulled out of the carpet trade, or the number of children rehabilitated during his tenure in Mirzapur. "The additional commissioner labour will provide the figures," he says.

The number of children rescued from the carpet industry in 2003-2004 turns out to be 50. Under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, it is an offence to employ children in hazardous industries. Such children must be rescued and sent back home, which, in most cases, means they return to their poverty-stricken villages in Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

Labour officials at the district level have been empowered to file cases against employers who hire child labour. Tellingly, not a single employer has been convicted so far. The evidence required for such a conviction is never forthcoming, as most of the rescued children are sent back to their home states.

Most activists believe that it's growing poverty that lies at the root of the problem. The administration, including the Uttar Pradesh Handloom Development Corporation, has not intervened to help local weavers. Nor have any measures been taken by the central government. By contrast, the carpet manufacturers are businessmen who will follow the pulls and pressures of the international market.

Activists also point out that large numbers of children, who are sent back home, often end up being resold by their parents to dalals (contractors) who then shunt them off to other parts of the country. Piecemeal solutions are not going to provide an answer to this problem; the government must come up with an integrated strategy whereby a national ethos for educating children is created, and strong poverty-reduction programmes put in place to ensure that parents have a vested interest in sending their children to school.

Enakshi Ganguly Thukral of HAQ, Centre for Child Rights, holds the neoliberal market economy responsible for forcing children back into the workforce. "With no checks and balances in place, adults have been forced out of the workforce and kids have taken their place. Huge cutbacks in the social sector have served to accelerate this trend. What is the point of the government introducing so much new legislation when none of it is being implemented," she asks.

Only a few weeks ago, 250 children staged a dharna in Badaun district, Uttar Pradesh. Led by 12-year-old Bhure and 10-year-old Manja, they raised slogans outside the district magistrate's office shouting 'Hum angootha nahin lagaenge, Hum padne jayenge' ('We will not remain illiterate, we want to study'). They were expressing the feelings of every child in this country.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2005

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