Littlest Laborers Find Ally
Despite foreign boycott threats, India's government has been slow to stop exploitation. So one private agency helps children help themselves through sidewalk schools and makeshift unions
By John-Thor Dahlburg
NEW DELHI--You would hardly notice Amit Kumar Prabakhar as he staggers by, his pint-size frame bent double under the weight of a suitcase weighing nearly 80 pounds.
Amit's profession, if you can call it one, is working as a coolie at Delhi's Interstate Bus Terminus. It gets chilly in India's capital in winter, but all he wears on his feet are plastic bath clogs. At night, he sleeps on a table.
For lugging the overstuffed valise of someone bound for Lucknow or Punjab, Amit pockets around 60 cents. He is proud of the work he does and of who he is.
"Don't say that I am poor," he insists, his irregular white teeth flashing. "Say that I am from a good family."
Amit, self-employed baggage porter, is 13.
Nobody seems to know for sure how many children work in India. Many, like Amit, a brave and engaging orphan from a factory town in Uttar Pradesh, are runaways and street children who must work just to survive. Some are sold by their parents into bondage. Yet others toil in the fields or shops alongside family members, who can be among the worst slave-drivers of all.
"Some say they are invisible. But they are not," says Rita Panicker, director of Butterflies, a New Delhi-based private organization that champions the cause of child laborers and street children. "We just don't want to see them."
India's 1991 census found that minors make up 8 percent of the laboring population. Concern for Working Child, Bangalore-based private group, pegs its estimate as high as a mind-boggling 100 million--more than the entire work force of all but a few countries.
In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, 80,000 children, many of whom are only 10, are employed in the match and fireworks industries. In Orissa, on the Bay of Bengal, every 20th child is a worker, most of them girls.
A Labor Ministry official estimates that 300,000 youngsters work in India's carpet industry alone. In Jaipur, 10,000 to 20,000 children do menial tasks associated with the cutting and polishing of sapphires, lapis lazuli and other gems. On tea plantations, an army of children cull the fragrant leaves for the beverage that will show up on European and American breakfast tables.
Indian law bars minors from being on the job more than five hours a day. But surveys show two-thirds of the country's laboring minors put in eight to 12 hours each day.
The average daily income for almost three-quarters of them is 10 rupees--less than 33 U.S. cents.
Often they are at the physical or sexual mercy of their employer. A Bombay entrepreneur forced boys from Tamil Nadu to sell snacks in the bazaar, then beat one 8-year-old who tried to escape with hot iron rods and bicycle inner tubes so savagely the child died.
Bhawan Singh knows plenty about beatings. The pudgy, brown-eyed boy from the foothills of the Himalayas becomes unreliably murky when he talks about dates, but he thinks he ran away from home at age 8 or 9 when his parents insisted he go to school. He stole 200 rupees and boarded a bus for a town he later found out was Ghaziabad. There Bhawan worked two years for no pay at a tea shop, receiving food in return and sleeping outdoors. If he spilled tea or broke a cup, the owner pummeled him.
Sickened by his life and alone in the world, the boy coaxed a bus driver into taking him to nearby Delhi, where Bhawan, now 18, joined one of the largest concentrations of working children in the world--an estimated 400,000, of whom 100,000 live on the streets, often alongside homeless parents.
"They must work to survive--collecting rags, shining shoes, selling newspapers, scavenging on rubbish dumps. Many also turn to crime," a U.N. Development Program report on street children said.
This is the gritty urban nether world made famous by Mira Nair's stark, award-winning 1988 film "Salaam Bombay!" which tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who comes to Bombay to earn money and becomes a chaipau , or "one who delivers tea and bread," in the red-light district.
The 1986 Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act sets no age limit for entry into the work force, although hazardous occupations are theoretically off limits to children 14 and younger.
Indian officials have long appeared to distinguish between child labor, which arguably is inevitable and even necessary in a country with hundreds of millions of poor, and the rank exploitation of children. "A problem like child labor cannot be solved overnight," Labor Minister P. A. Sangma has said.
That mind-set may explain why it took Sangma's ministry six years to prepare the draft of a change to India's Minimum Wages Act preventing employers from paying children and adolescents less than adults.
Even that molasses-paced effort was prompted at least in part by American and other overseas threats to boycott imports produced with child labor. One bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would empower the Treasury secretary to ban the entry of items manufactured, like Indian handwoven carpets, by industries employing children.
India's smallest workers have few allies. When a group of coolies ages 11 to 15 at Delhi's I.N.A. Market formed a union to try to protect themselves from beatings and exploitation by shopkeepers and police alike, the Delhi Registrar of Trade Unions refused to legalize it, citing a 1926 law that forbids workers under 15 from joining a union.
As for organized labor, the plight of India's child laborers seems to interest it little.
"It is difficult enough to organize adults. What do you do with children?" asked T. A. Francis of the All India Trade Union Congress in a Calcutta newspaper.
Panicker, a bespectacled, plump South Indian with a degree in social work who has been working on Delhi's streets since 1987, observes: "These children know they are being exploited; no one has to tell them that. They know it's not fair that others go to school and they don't."
Delhi's cavernous bus station and its Kiplingesque throngs of hurrying passengers in turbans and saris and vendors hawking cigarettes and other wares by the light of flaming torches could have been a dead end for Amit and Bhawan, if not for Butterflies.
After arriving in India's capital four years ago, Bhawan led a vagabond life as a baggage porter, sleeping in the terminal and blowing almost all his meager earnings to watch Hindi-language action films and melodramas.
Today he is the proud supervisor of a unique restaurant outside the terminal that was organized by Butterflies and is now run by 10 street children ranging in age from 15 to 19.
"I've learned something," Bhawan says happily one evening as, arms akimbo and clad in a dirty red-check shirt, he talks to a visitor over a glass of milky tea. "My life is orderly now."
He makes out bills, lights the coal-fired chula stove inside an oil drum to cook flat Indian bread, waits on the seven Formica-topped tables and makes sure everybody else does his job. Beginning workers are paid 500 rupees (about $16) a month, get free meals and receive medical care.
The restaurant has given a sense of belonging to a few of the children who used to fend for themselves on Delhi's mean streets. There are even touching signs of hope: Garish printed likenesses of Lakshmi, the Hindu religion's goddess of fortune, adorn the dirty blue walls.
"These boys bought all these posters hoping that maybe fortune would come calling here," Souparna Lahiri said with a smile. Lahiri is an adult Butterflies worker who is investigating whether other businesses should be opened to employ children.
In existence since January, 1988, Butterflies operates out of Panicker's second-floor South Delhi apartment on an annual budget of about $50,000 and grants from Germany, Holland, France and Indian government agencies.
Its 10 "street educators" use the street-lamp-lighted pavements of Delhi as a classroom to teach the rudiments of Hindi, English, arithmetic and other basic subjects to a total of 285 children, 80 percent of whom have never seen the inside of a school.
"Our second aim is to make them good, true, honest people," says street educator Praveen Sherma, a political science graduate from Delhi University.
Butterflies has eight "contact points" frequented by 500 porters, shoeshine boys, ragpickers, flower vendors, tea shop attendants and other child laborers. The emphasis is on children organizing and deciding what is important for them, and on developing pride and character.
At the bus station, the coolies decided to gather in the afternoon for class because nighttime travelers are too valuable a source of tips for them to pass up. Amit, who had already spent seven years in school, can read some of an English-language newspaper thanks to street schooling.
Under the aegis of Butterflies, the Interstate Bus Terminus porters have also organized their own union. One Friday night, clad in cloaks and dirty shirts of various shades of sepia, gray and black, they assembled in the restaurant under Panicker's gaze to discuss whether to admit another category of child worker, the bootblacks.
The union is no panacea for its members' problems. One youngster, Jasbir Singh, almost died after sleeping overnight on an outdoor bus platform. Only two coolies are participating in a savings plan that requires a minimum deposit of just 6 cents. Deploring poor attendance, the boys who have come to the Friday meeting vote to require all other members to attend in the future, or face expulsion.
In what by all accounts is a historic first in India, a group of children helped by Butterflies took their cause all the way to the Supreme Court--and won a hearing.
After a Delhi judge last August upheld the refusal of the Registrar of Trade Unions to authorize the Bal Mazdoor (Child Labor) Union, Butterflies, with the help of Soli J. Sorabjee, India's former solicitor general, lodged an appeal.
The Supreme Court now has ordered India's government to explain, in effect, why it believes children should be allowed to work like adults but not to organize to defend their interests. Court proceedings are scheduled to start this month.
Indian officials have begun talking about the need to bring about a phased end to child labor. Meanwhile, the Harkin bill and a grass-roots drive in Germany to boycott imported carpets woven by children have made New Delhi supersensitive to the potential costs in lost export earnings of the continued exploitation of children.
But statistics and experience show real improvement still lies in the future.
"I think the movie 'Salaam Bombay!' made people sensitive to these kids," says Panicker, 38, who is married but childless."But there is no concern that goes beyond sympathy, to the point of feeling anger and shame and therefore wanting to do something. People don't see this as a great scandal."
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1994.