South Asia

Out of Bondage

A boy works a silk loom in southern India
Modern Slavery: A child works a silk loom in southern India (Photo: S. Thanthoni).

“I cannot believe that I am free and can see daylight.” These words of 13-year-old V. Manikandan, who was freed from a master weaver in Kanchipuram, a major silk-weaving center [in southern India], left most of those gathered at a recent function to mark the release of bonded children with moist eyes. Like Manikandan, over 150 children between the ages of 6 and 15 are thrilled to be out of the loom pits, in which they had been working from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, for several years. They are free today thanks to the Kanchipuram district administration and the Social Action Movement (SAM), a nonprofit, voluntary organization based in Kanchipuram.

The master weavers had kept the children in bondage against loans ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 rupees [about US$21-$215] that their parents had taken. The district administration and SAM acted after the media exposed the plight of thousands of children.

One hundred and fourteen bonded children were released under the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act (1976), and SAM deposited Rs.20,000 [$430] in the name of each child. It built two special schools that would act as “bridges” before the children were integrated into regular schools, and it sent notices to some master weavers. According to E.P. Annalarasu, project officer, the district administration has come out with a number of other schemes, which are expected to receive funds to the tune of Rs.50 million from the National Child Labor Project (NCLP). Eighty percent of the funds so far have come from the U.S. government and the remainder from the International Labor Organization. Under the NCLP, several measures are to be introduced in areas where child labor is a major problem. The program proposes to set up over 50 special schools, strengthen regular schools, establish more than 500 self-help groups, train women in vocations that could supplement their income, and make a monthly deposit of Rs.100 [$2] in a nationalized bank for every child taken off work.

How is the administration going to ensure that the children do not slip back into bondage? According to Annalarasu, of the Rs.20,000 that is allotted to the family of every child released under the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, only Rs.1,000 will be given to the parents and the remainder will be deposited in a nationalized bank in the name of the child. This amount will be released to the family after the child turns 21. Even the interest on the deposit (Rs.98 a month) will be paid to the family only if the child is in school. The monthly sum of Rs.100, proposed to be given to each released child under the NCLP, will be put in a recurring deposit account, but only if the child remains in school.

Annalarasu says: “Though the NCLP has been effective in Kanchipuram since 1997, we have not got any funds from the government, and the steps we have taken to rehabilitate the released bonded children have been supported only by philanthropic funds.” In 1997-98, the district administration released 81 children from bondage. Some of the families took the money but sent their children back into bondage.

On June 3, SAM, which has freed over 200 children in the past three years and put them in special schools, released 27 bonded children from the Kanchipuram and Tiruvannamalai districts by paying Rs.72,500 [$1,560]—collected from philanthropists and people who offered help after reading media reports—to the master weavers.

Parents of many of the released children are not sure if they will be able to keep their wards in school for long. Speaking on behalf of all the parents whose children were released by SAM, one mother, Dhanam, says: “We know the value of education. We are all keen to send our children to school. But our economic condition is such that the Rs.100 to Rs.250 that the child brings every month from working in the loom is a big help to the family.”

Nine-year-old S. Sankari asks: “How is it that even after working for so many years the amount of money my parents owe the master weavers remains the same? We want to say goodbye to work and march to school. But how can we?” Eleven-year-old D. Annamalai laments: “Is there no solution to our misery? We all want to be in school. We know it is the right of every child to be in school. But is that right not applicable to poor children like us?”

Studies show that poverty is not the only cause of bonded labor. The other major reasons include lack of access to credit, the absence of coordinated social-welfare schemes, the inaccessibility and the low standards of schools, caste discrimination in schools, the non-implementation of minimum wages for adults, adult unemployment, and historical and economic relationships based on the caste hierarchy and other discriminatory factors.

Monthly adult wages are so low—Rs.500 to Rs.1,500 [$11-32]—that the workers are forced to keep borrowing from their employers, who ensure that the loans remain, even though the value of the labor performed by the child is enough to repay the debt several times over.

According to Annalarasu, one way of ensuring that the released children remain in school is to provide supplementary income to the families. Self-help groups (SHGs) have an important role to play in this regard. He says that the district administration has started over 500 SHGs. He suggests that the SHGs help in the eradication of child bondage in many ways. They provide additional income to the family, create awareness about the advantages of sending children to school, and provide social pressure to send children to school.

Over 20 children in the areas covered by the SHGs have voluntarily joined the special schools without even claiming the Rs.20,000 they are entitled to under the Bonded Labor Act.

While it is important to ensure that the released children do not return to bondage, it is also crucial to rescue thousands of children who continue to be bonded to master weavers. The government has a role to play in this. According to Annalarasu, the district administration has acted to solve the problem by starting 30 schools (for adults and children), which function from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., to accommodate those who work during the day. Several children from these schools appeared for the matriculation-level Board examinations as private candidates and have done well, he says.

Night schools should not be seen as a solution to the problem of bondage. The children, after working 12 hours a day, find it difficult to sit through the classes. The only way to deal with the issue effectively is to implement the law on compulsory primary education strictly.

But, according to N. Radhakrishnan of the Arivoli Iyakkam, a literacy movement in Kanchipuram, there are many problems in implementing laws against child labor and bonded labor. The laws vary in fixing the upper age limit to define child labor: It ranges from 14 to 18 years. According to Radhakrishnan, the district administration had booked 141 cases under the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act in Kanchipuram, but only one came up for hearing.

The act has a number of loopholes: For instance, an amendment has removed the provision for three months’ imprisonment for master weavers who employ children; now they only have to pay a fine of Rs.10,000. Says Radhakrishnan: “It is easier to release a child under the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. The district revenue officer is the magistrate under the act and if he certifies the release of the child, the master weaver has to comply.” Thus, according to Radhakrishnan, different acts are invoked depending on the situation. “The bottom line,” he says, “is to see to it that the child is out of bondage and in school.”

When asked why only 114 children had been released in Kanchipuram under the act, while thousands remain enslaved, Annalarasu says that parents have to fill out a form giving details such as the name of the employer, the nature of work, and the amount owed. Only 114 parents had submitted the details.

Inquiries revealed that parents hesitated to give the details either because the employers had threatened them or because they did not want to spoil the chances of getting help from the master weavers in the future.

According to T. Raj, project officer at SAM, this amounts to looking at the issue simplistically and shifting the responsibility to poor parents who are compelled to send their children to work. The district administration needs to look at the issue comprehensively without compartmentalizing it on the basis of projects, programs, and targets if it really intends to “free the children from bondage and help them to see daylight.”