New Delhi: Mohammed Tauheer, a poor office helper, fought back tears as he was shown the door at a police station where his sons were being questioned after a rescue operation for child workers.

“Believe me, they are my sons. Where are they being taken?" he pleaded, fearful he would never see his boys again. The children, aged 10 and 15, were working in a sweat shop when police raided the premises to rescue underage garment workers as part of a series of searches last week.

Protection call: A file photo of children at a garment unit in Shahpur Jat. Activists say children rescued after the Gap scandal need to be properly rehabilitated, or else most of them will be back at sweat shops soon.

Tauheer’s emotional pleas continued late into the night and underscored the factors that hamper India’s fight against underage workers— estimated to number somewhere between 12 million and 60 million.

An indifferent police, acute poverty and poor law enforcement have made it tough to stamp out child labour, which is under renewed focus since a local supplier to US retailer Gap was found using children at work.

A series of raids were swiftly conducted in narrow lanes housing small garment units in New Delhi after the Gap scandal emerged. And many such as Tauheer’s sons—who were eventually returned to the poor migrant worker—are likely to be back at work soon.

“These children need to be properly rehabilitated, or else most of them will be back at sweat shops in no time," said Bhuwan Ribhu of Save the Childhood Foundation, which says it has rescued more than 75,000 children in 25 years.

Activists say the laws provide for compensation to children, but the police and government lack the will to implement the rules.

During one such raid in New Delhi’s Khanpur area, activists said they needed to be present to ensure the police do not tip off the targets or accept bribes from factory owners.

It was the activists who barged into the shops, pulled out the children and questioned the employers—while the police failed to turn up as promised. “Officially the police are supposed to be here, but they haven’t reached here yet," shrugged Satyarthi, adding that two of his friends had been previously killed in such rescue work.

Most child workers come from the poor states of Bihar and Jharkhand, where many are bought from parents for as little as Rs1,000 with the frequently false promise of monthly salary.

Laws prohibit hiring children under the age of 14 for employment deemed “hazardous" such as for domestic work, restaurants, glass-making and embroidery work.

But many Indians continue to employ children in the belief that they are doing them a favour by providing for their families. “It is nonsense and has to do with the economics of cheap labour. If that is the case, why don’t they hire an adult and provide for his family," Ribhu said. “Our biggest challenge against child labour is that we look for excuses, not for ­solutions."

Poverty and lack of good primary education are seen as major causes of child labour. About 65 million children aged six to 14 were not attending school, according to census figures.

Despite a booming economy growing, India has the world’s most poor people, with some 290 million living in poverty, according to the World Bank.

The country’s level of child under-nutrition is almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa, it says.

“It’s a vicious cycle: children get jobs which their parents are not given and grow up to become unskilled adults who can’t find jobs again," said activist Satyarthi.

“Poverty is both a cause and consequence of child labour," Bhuwan added.