While working on a machine in a sericulture unit in Karnataka, a little girl was severely injured in the head. Sericulture is the art of raising silkworms to obtain raw silk. The incident ocurred in the Ramanagaram-Channapatna taluk (a group of villages make a taluk) of Karnataka, where there are many such units.

The little girl is one of hundreds of thousands of children employed in the sericulture industry in the state. Owners of sericulture units prefer children over adults for the work.

The Silken Web
The Silken Web [Illustration by Shinod AP]

The traumatised life of these children is the subject of a documentary film, Inde Baalya or Childhood Now, in Kannada and English. A Mangalore-based film-maker, Natesh Ullal, and his wife Vidya Dinker, have made the film, said a report in The Hindu.

The documentary is based on a study carried out by MAYA (Movement for Alternatives and Youth Awareness). MAYA is a non-governmental organisation working on issues that affect children and youth.

A sericulture unit is extremely cramped as there is very little space to work in. Imagine a narrow matchbox-like space. That and the low height of the bobbin, the cylinder or spindle on which the thread is wound, makes it difficult for a grown-up person to work.

Inside a sericulture factory
Women working on weaving machine using silkworm cocoons in a silk factory. Elena Mirage / Shutterstock.com

The child worker is made to stand with her back to the wall with the machine in front of her. She is almost trapped under the machinery, as if she were standing in a narrow cage. Now you know why owners of such units prefer children to work on the machine.

The reeler, the person who turns the wheel, throws cocoons to her every now and then. The child creates silk from the cocoon.

There’s another reason why children are hired in the sericulture industry. Child labour is far cheaper than adult labour. And sericulture requires a lot of work to be done by hands and much less by machine.

Children work as turners, pupae pickers, helpers and even cocoon cooks in these units. The common illnesses among them are asthma, fungal infection, malnutrition and anaemia.

The most challenging task for Ullal and his team was to film the children working in the most awful conditions.

They knew that if the mill owners came to know the real purpose of their work, they’d never allow them to film it. So, the team pretended to be interested only in the process of producing the silk. That way, they could enter the premises and still film the work that little children were made to do, and also how they were made to do it.

While camerapersons operated the camera, Ullal and Dinker spoke continuously to the mill owner in order to divert his attention.