Panipat, Haryana: In a typical scene of our rote-learning tradition, inside a spare hall in an abandoned factory, three dozen children make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in material comfort. There are no tables or chairs. So they file in and sit cross-legged on the ground, some spilling out of the room into the paved driveway outside, on a hot afternoon. There are no blackboards or chalks. So they enthusiastically repeat the number counts from memory. “82, 83, 84, 85…” they shout, as the chorus of their small voices reverberates across the empty grounds.
The children learn in what is known as a bridge school, a rehabilitation programme under the government’s National Child Labour Project (NCLP) for child workers rescued from factories. Their stories tell us how too many children are still denied their fundamental right to education.
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Anil is 11 years old. He cleans cotton in a warehouse that goes into making doormats and durries (cotton rugs).
Mobasira has been knotting carpet edges as long as she can remember. She’s 11.
Renu is 12. She cuts thread used in cotton carpets, and at some point in the past, worked in a soap factory. She cooks for the family when her parents are away at work.
Changing fortunes: (Top) Child workers study at a school aided by the National Child Labour Project in Panipat; (above) Anil (holding his sister Aarti), a rescued child worker, along with other children at the school, which is situated in an abandoned factory. Photos by Ankit Agrawal/Mint
All of them began school education when Panipat belatedly opened some 60 bridge schools three years ago, picked up from alleys and factories around town after a survey uncovered a high incidence of child workers in this export hub. A 2007 study, conducted by the NCLP Society and local non-profit organization Aident Social Welfare Organisation, found 5,867 children employed in textile units and brick kilns. Some believe the numbers could be higher.
“Factories deny they hire children, but they do. Some of our students still go back to work after school,” says Surjit Kaur, NCLP director.
In class, these children are taught elementary Hindi, English and basic math for three years, a kind of a crash learning programme before they are enrolled in mainstream schools. More than 3,000 students currently attend these bridge schools.
India has been battling to keep children out of factories as speedy industrialization converts small towns such as Panipat into production zones. The problem of child employment has been exacerbated by movements of migrants who travel in search of jobs. Putting survival before their future, many parents expect their children to earn first. In Panipat, the local administration has resigned to a halfway solution under such pressure: Let the children work, so long they come to school.
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Soon after school is over, Anil sprints across the sewage-choked lane to comb heaps of cotton stocks that go into making rugs and blankets.
As underage workers, they earn underage wages, too. Picking shreds of paper and plastic scraps with his nimble fingers, Anil, who has been working since he was eight, makes Rs5 for every two hours of work. “When we work together, we work fast. We can each earn Rs.65 by evening,” he says.
Mobasira, who lives with her family inside a carpet factory, earns about Rs1,000 a month. The employer invariably pays this amount to her mother to prevent detection by government agencies.
An estimated 10 million children slave away in fields and factories across the country, according to the 1999-2000 National Sample Survey conducted by the government.
Under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, workers below 14 years of age cannot be employed in hazardous jobs in the handloom and power loom industry. Neither in industrial processes, such as carpet weaving and wool-cleaning. A walk into Shiv Nagar colony’s bylanes proves otherwise.
Thirteen-year-old Haseen, and sisters, Maujabin and Shauheen, 12 and 10, respectively, run an electric machine, called a winder, thinning raw yarn into smooth threads for carpets. Their factory had secured an order to make 10,000 sq. ft of red carpet from one of the city’s top export houses, Sunny Exports Pvt. Ltd, according to the factory owner, who did not want to be identified.
While Sunny Exports’ website claims it has “a well-defined policy to ensure prevention of child labour” and lists international brands such as Marks and Spencer (M&S) and Ikea as its clients, these rules are barely observed beyond its boundary walls.
While the three sisters attended the bridge course and were mainstreamed in a government school a year ago, they continue to spend hours besides the winder at evening. If four members pitch in, the family could make Rs8,000 a month, the mother, Mehrunisa, says. The women spin upstairs in a doorless, mud-floored room next to their one-room living quarter where they sleep and cook. Their father weaves rugs of mellow shades and geometric patterns in a dank, poorly-lit basement below a narrow staircase.
Dalbir Jaglan, Sunny Exports’ managing director, refused to speak or meet. Ikea, which is one of the companies that sources products from the firm, said in a statement that the company does not accept child labour and has been actively working to prevent it. M&S has stopped sourcing from Sunny Exports three years ago, according to its corporate communication representative in Delhi.
“If child labour is found, we take strong actions,” says Susanne Bergstrand, the New Delhi-based trading area manager at Ikea Trading Hongkong Ltd.
Child workers remain hidden from sight as they are employed in nameless, small workshops that exporters parcel out job orders to, says NCLP’s Kaur. Finding them has also been harder because corrupt factory officials ignore violations and errant employers are rarely convicted (see chart).
The industry remains nonchalant. Prem Sagar Vij, president of the Panipat Exporters’ Association, asserts his industry is committed to not employing child labour, but admitted companies outsource “anywhere between zero to 20%”. “A beginning could be made by companies to make their supply chain more transparent,” Vij points out.
Experts say the real number of working children is never known as a consolidated survey hasn’t been carried out in India. Many industrial towns still do not know the extent of child labour used. In July, the US government placed at least six items from India under its watch list which it believes were made with child labour, including garments, embroidery, cotton seed, stones, brick kiln and rice.
“We cannot play musical chairs with numbers. These children cannot be found this way,” says Laxmi Dhar Mishra, special rapporteur with the National Human Rights Commission and a former bureaucrat who has authored a book on working children.
While the government acknowledges poverty as the main cause for child labour, its attempt to extend subsidy to below the poverty line migrant families as incentive to send children to school has been mixed.
The functioning of the bridge schools has also been criticized. Child workers are supposed to get Rs100 stipend a month as incentive to attend, but they don’t. They are entitled to midday meals, but they haven’t been provided. With funds delay, many of the teachers haven’t been paid salaries for 10 months, according to Atul Kumar, a staffer of Aident, which runs these schools. A report on Rehabilitation of Child Labour in Indiaby the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute in September points to lack of a system to monitor progress of former child workers once they’ve been admitted to formal schools.
Meanwhile, migrant families like Haseen’s, who hail from Uttar Pradesh, haven’t been able to access food rations from the public distribution system for lack of identity proof. “It’s not that we like our children to work,” says her mother, Mehrunisa. “But when wages are low, we have to do something for survival.”
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint