Thursday, October 18, 2007

Is India Shining Really?

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 center of Delhi.

The tomb itself is in bad shape, despite the sign outside which proclaims it a nationally protected monument, 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 places barely a meter from its walls. In many of the windows opposite, young children are clearly visible, hunched over low tables, diligently embroidering sequins onto brightly-colored silk and gauze.

Welcome to India's zari industry - where children labor 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 young as 9 cautiously describe their bleak working conditions. They squat on the floor for the duration of their 16-hour shifts, from 9 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning, for which they earn about 100 rupees, or $2.50. Food (watery vegetable curry and rice) is served in plastic buckets.

The children, all migrants from impoverished rural areas, sleep and work in the same squalid, bare rooms, their few belongings stored in plastic bags in the corner. 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 laborers, available to do contract work for the textile industry. In the gutters outside, the raw sewage that runs down open drains sparkles with sequins. Tiny flashes of pink, yellow and green turn out, on closer inspection, to be glinting plastic jewels, decorating the mounds of cow and goat dung.

Despite repeated requests from Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an energetic nongovernment organization dedicated to eradicating child labor, and despite the presence of a police station less than one kilometer away, nothing has been done to shut down these workshops, even though the employment of 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 labor.

On Wednesday, India marked the first anniversary of the strengthening of its child labor laws. A year ago this week, amid much media excitement and government fanfare, an amendment to the Child Labor 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 caf├ęs as low-paid waiters.

At the time, activists working in the field voiced some caution about what they felt were 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 is frustration at the slow pace of change.

On the plus side, campaigners say there has been considerable raising of 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 has been very little police action to prosecute those who continue to employ children, there is a belief that it is possible to continue as before with impunity.

No comments: