Tourists hoping for a glimpse of real India should ditch the well trodden Red Fort-Taj Mahal circuit and make a pilgrimage to a little-known Moghul-era tomb hidden in the shabby residential district of Kotla, smack in the centre of Delhi. The nationally protected monument itself is in bad shape, but visitors are welcome to walk inside and climb up the unlit stone staircase to the roof.

This is where the excursion becomes interesting, and it is perhaps Delhi police officers, rather than tourists, who should be taking stock of the view from here. Ugly apartment blocks have been built around the monument over the last few decades. In many of the windows opposite, young children are clearly visible, hunched over low tables, embroidering sequins onto brightly coloured silk and gauze.

Welcome to India’s zari industry—where children labour for a pittance to stitch elaborate brocaded designs onto high-fashion evening wear for India’s new rich.

Around half a dozen of these sweatshops are open to casual inspection from the tomb’s roof. In the labyrinthine lanes nearby, too narrow for cars to pass through, there are dozens more. Inside, boys as young as nine cautiously describe their bleak working conditions. They squat on the floor for the duration of their 16-hour shifts, from 9am until 1am?the?following morning, for which they earn about Rs100. Food (watery curry and rice) is served in plastic buckets.

The children, all migrants from rural areas,?sleep?and work in the same squalid, bare rooms, their few belongings stored in plastic bags. In some places, as many as 16 live cramped together, with only a CD player to break the monotony.

This area of Delhi is well known as a ghetto of cheap child labourers, available to do contract work for the textile industry. In the gutters outside, the raw sewage that runs down open drains sparkles with sequins. Despite?repeated?requests from Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an NGO dedicated to eradicating child labour, and despite the presence of a police station less than 1km away, nothing has been done to close these workshops, even though employing children under 14 in the zari business has been illegal for more than 20 years.

The scene broadly sums up the effectiveness of India’s ban on child labour. On Wednesday, India marked the first anniversary of the strengthening of its child labour laws. A year ago, amid much media excitement and government fanfare, an amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, which prohibits the employment of children under 14 in “hazardous" jobs, was announced, extending the definition of what constitutes hazardous to include children working in homes as maids and in hotels, restaurants and roadside cafés as low-paid waiters.

At the time, activists cautioned about inadequate preparations for the rescue and rehabilitation of illegally employed children, and warned that vigorous enforcement was essential if the modified law were to be any more potent than the existing statutes. A year on, there’s frustration at the slow pace of change. On the plus side, many say there has been considerable awareness across the country, so that most people now realize that employing a young child as a cleaner in your home is illegal. On the less positive side, since there’s been very little police action to prosecute those who continue to employ children, there’s a belief that it’s possible to continue as before with impunity.

“Without enforcement, awareness is meaningless," said Bhuwan Ribhu, a campaigner with Bachpan Bachao Andolan. “We had wholeheartedly welcomed the ban because it was a step in the right direction. But it was only a step. A law is only a piece of paper if it is not enforced." Unicef agrees. “One year down the line, enormous challenges remain in translating that law into practice," the UN children’s agency said. Some states, particularly in the South, have been more energetic in implementing the law. Nationwide, however, only 2,229 violations of the law had been identified in the past year, leading to just 211 prosecutions of employers, according to an NGO Save the Children, quoting government data. “What are these figures in a country the size of India? Next to nothing," Ribhu said. Official figures suggest there are 12 million children working in India, but activists believe the real figure is closer to 60 million.

For things to work better, the government needs to work backwards, from the villages, said Shireen Miller of Save the Children, creating a smooth system for returning rescued children to their homes, rehabilitating them and ensuring that school places are available. These processes are not yet in place, she added. Part of the problem is a widely shared and enduring conviction in India that child labour is not inherently wrong. “We have yet to convince people of this," Miller said, adding that even some ministers continued to believe that with so much rural poverty, employment was an acceptable solution for a child from an impoverished family. “We need to argue that for the development and progress of the country, these children must be in education," she said.

Shantha Sinha, of the state-funded National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, concurs: “There isn’t enough outrage in society that these children are working and not at school. This will come only when the government begins to take serious action." In Delhi, the signs are not encouraging. Ribhu said his colleagues had made repeated requests for the Kotla workshops to be closed, without success, while at other times, it was that the appropriate official was on leave, or he was unwell, or simply out of town. “The information is not being acted on," he said. “It is despicable."


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