Where: Washington DC, USA
September 23, 2000: A few days ago, 12-year old Kalu Kumar was a special invitee of the US President, Bill Clinton, at the White House. Kalu had been invited by the President for the launch of a book on child labour written by Kerry Kennedy, of the Kennedy family that has contributed many significant figures to American politics, including former President John F Kennedy, and his brother, Robert Kennedy.
Kalu was once a child-labourer.
Kalu’s story: from carpet factory to first rank in school
Born in a low-caste family in Bihar, as a child he toiled on the landlord’s farm with his father, a bonded labourer himself. From one hard life he was thrown into another, this time a carpet factory where alongwith other boys he worked 16 hours a day – all seven days. Beatings and insufficient food were ways of keeping the boys awake.
Two years later, in 1998, he was rescued by members of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) and sent to a rehabiliation center. On his own merit Kalu joined a government school in standard IV. He came first in class that year.
Today, he is undergoing training in social consciousness and personality development. He likes theatre, singing and dancing. He would like to forget the experiences of his past as a bad dream, but so that poor boys are not exploited the way he was, he has joined Mukti Caravan, a campaign for public awareness against child labour.
Kalu wants to become a teacher someday.
Kalu as a symbol of hope
Who can be a better symbol of hope for the millions of working children in India and the rest of the world.
There are nearly 60 million or six crore child workers in various industries in India, according to the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) which has been trying to focus attention on the plight of child labourers.
His visit to the White House was meant to focus world attention on the plight of child workers in the world. A report about him appeared in ‘The Telegraph’ recently.
Kalu in the world of politicians
But there was another reason why Kalu was in the White House. For some years now America and other developed countries have been asking less developed countries like India to sign an agreement saying that they must stop using child labour in many industries like carpets, metal, glass and crackers, or they would stop importing those items.
These industries fetch their employers and the Indian government profit so they are accusing America of trying to spoil their prospects. Also saying that these children and their families would starve if they were not employed, the Indian government has refused to sign one part of the World Trade Organisation agreement that relates to this. The American government says they really find child labour terrible.
Kalu’s presence was meant to give a boost to President Clinton’s call to India to sign the social clause, as it is called, in the agreement. There is an amount of hypocrisy in the stand of both governments. India refuses to see the exploitation of children because it sees a harmful motive in the American government’s stand.
Despite its concern for children America has its own weak spot: it has not signed an international agreement barring under 18s from being conscripted in the army. And Clinton must have seen a great opportunity to gain the admiration of his people by inviting Kalu over.
The other Kalus
For every Kalu there are millions of children being exploited in the harshest of conditions the world over. So what happens to them?
This is one area where India tops the list: in the number of urban and rural child labourers it has. While the Indian government says it’s only 17.5 million, non-governmental organisations or NGOs like SACCS say it could be upwards of 60 million.
Where are the child workers in India to be found?
India’s flourishing export industry employs the largest number of child workers, though the exact number is not known. Major export industries which utilise child labour include hand-knotted carpets, gemstone polishing, brass and base metal articles, glass and glassware, footwear, textiles and silk, and fireworks.
There are 300,000 children working in the carpet industry alone, says SACCs. The most hazardous work takes place in the carpet industry, and the match and fireworks industries.
Child slaves in India’s ‘carpet belt’
In the hand-knotted carpet industry (that finds a huge export market in America and Germany) children work in almost every stage of carpet-making. The “carpet belt” consists of Uttar Pradesh, the Jammu-Kashmir region, as well as outside Jaipur in Rajasthan.
They do everything including sorting, knotting, cutting, washing, and dyeing, states a 1994 report on child labour in India by the International Labour Rights Education and Research Fund (ILRERF).
They also rear sheep, roll yarn into balls, string the looms, and weave and bind carpets. Often, children begin work at six or eight years old as unpaid “apprentices”. They are paid a paltry amount and made to work an average of six to twelve hours a day.
A typical day in the match factory belt
The Sivakasi-Sattur belt in Tamil Nadu, which produces 55 per cent of the matches in India, is believed to employ 50,000 to 100,000 child workers in the match and fireworks industries.
Children are carried in buses from their villages to the work sites between 3 am and 5 am in the morning. They are returned home between 6 pm and 9 pm. They dye outer paper, roll gunpowder, make firecrackers, dip material into chemicals, and pack the final products for seven to twelve hours every day.
Besides the long exhausting work hours, the children are in constant danger from highly inflammable chemicals spread on the floor. The chemicals have created fatal accidents.
Why are there so many child workers in India?
There are many laws banning child labour, but none seem to work. Some say it is because of poverty that children are also forced to work, and that if they did not work their families would die.
Others say that because of caste prejudices, the mainly higher caste people who make and implement laws have decided to keep large sections of our society uneducated and poor. That is why India has one of the highest rates of illiteracy and a very large number of drop-outs from school.
The real reason could be all of this and more. It could be the policies of development that independent India has taken that have not offered any real solutions to the high numbers of the poor in our country.
It could also be the fact that our education system is so unsuited to the actual needs of our people that many children do not find a place in it. For example, our school education teaches that only those in intellectual work are decent people. The joy of discovering the world by making things with ones hands is never given importance in our schools.
If we look at the past, we can see examples of children learning the use of their hands as a proud activity, learning the trade of the family almost naturally. All that is gone now, thrown out of our snooty education system.
What we have in its place is this barbaric system of child labour, where the idea of working with the hands is given the shape of a terrible torture. It goes without saying that it also carries with it the stamp of an extremely low, animal-like activity.
That is why there are fewer examples of a Kalu in India. Those who are there depend more on their individual grit than the support society gives them.