January 23, 2003

I.  SUMMARY

Millions of children in India toil as virtual slaves, unable to escape the work that will leave them impoverished, illiterate, and often crippled by the time they reach adulthood.  These are India's bonded child laborers.  A majority of them are Dalits, so-called untouchables.  Bound to their employers in exchange for a loan, they are unable to leave while in debt and earn so little they may never be free of it.  The Indian government knows about these children and has the mandate to free them.  Instead, for reasons of apathy, caste bias, and corruption, many government officials deny that they exist at all.

Somewhere between sixty to 115 million children are working in India, most in agriculture, others picking rags, making bricks, polishing gemstones, rolling beedi cigarettes, packaging firecrackers, working as domestics, and weaving silk saris and carpets.  Since Human Rights Watch's first investigation in 1996, the Indian government has taken some positive steps to address the plight of working children and bonded laborers of all ages.  At the same time, there are serious problems with implementation on the ground.  In the last decade, efforts in some regions have driven bonded child labor out of factories and into households, which are partially exempt from the law, changing bonded child labor's manifestation but not its prevalence or intensity.  In many areas, bonded child labor still flourishes openly.

In 1996 Human Rights Watch published The Small Hands of Slavery:  Bonded Child Labor in India, a 179-page report documenting the use of bonded child labor in seven industries:  beedi, silver, synthetic gemstones, silk, leather, agriculture, and handwoven wool carpets.[1]  The report concluded that the Indian government had failed to study, accurately report, or acknowledge the incidence of bonded labor, child labor, and bonded child labor; to enforce its own laws, which taken together outlaw the use of bonded child labor and require rehabilitation of bonded laborers; or to implement its own policies that purport to combat child labor.  In the silk industry, which had largely been ignored up to that point, Human Rights Watch found that nearly all child workers who were not the children of employers were bonded, and that the World Bank and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation were financing sericulture projects dependent on this labor.

Small Hands of Slavery was published during a surge of attention to child labor and, to a much lesser extent, bonded labor.  In December 1996 the Supreme Court of India issued a groundbreaking decision outlining a detailed framework for punishing employers of children in hazardous labor and for rehabilitating the children.  In 1997 the Court ordered India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to supervise states' implementation of the bonded labor law; the NHRC then began appointing special rapporteurs who applied pressure in certain regions and industries.  State governments were obliged to conduct surveys on bonded labor and child labor, although the numbers reported were widely regarded, including by the Supreme Court, as gross underestimates.  There were some high-profile raids on employers.  A few were prosecuted, but only a tiny handful produced convictions.  Almost no employers actually went to prison.

The World Bank also began paying greater attention to child labor, appointing staff dedicated to the issue and promising to coordinate with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and other bodies.  The Bank-funded sericulture projects that Human Rights Watch investigated in 1996 ended and were not extended.  In 1998, the Bank published suggested measures to address child labor and has promised to require compliance with domestic child labor laws.  However, Bank staff told Human Rights Watch in 2002 that child labor issues are on the "backburner" in India. 

Through the efforts of both government bodies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), public awareness in India that bonded labor and child labor in hazardous occupations are illegal and harmful increased.  While states continued to deny the presence of bonded labor in their territories and grossly underestimated the use of child labor and bonded labor, by the late 1990s, the steps taken were at least promising.

But by 2003, most government promises had not materialized.  States were still rarely freeing and rehabilitating bonded laborers, and the central government, with the exception of the NHRC, was acquiescing to states' inaction.  Many government efforts never reached beyond high-profile industries like carpets and beedi, and are now stalled.  According to Joseph Gathia, director of the Centre of Concern for Child Labour, "We are now in a state of purgatory.  We have to put in more effort or we will recede."[2]

At all levels of government, the political will to fully implement positive changes in law and policy is lacking.  Almost all government officials whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report denied that children were bonded.  Then-Labour Secretary Vinod Vaish declared:

The words "bonded labor" and the word "child labor" are O.K.  But not "bonded child labor." . . .  I don't think that we have many cases of bonded child labor.  This is not a widespread problem.  I admit that the use of child labor prevails.  It is part of a family setting in an agricultural situation.  Children are helping the family.[3]

And K. Chandramouli, the Ministry of Labour's joint secretary for child labor, told Human Rights Watch:  "I haven't heard too much that this is a problem-I  have heard of bonding older people but not any kids."[4] 

Statistics on bonded and child labor held by the Ministry of Labour vary widely from those held by states, demonstrating the government's failure to collect accurate data and its gross underrepresentation of the problem.

Both the central and state governments are now backing away from their limited efforts to enforce the child labor law:  with the notable exception of a few individuals, most government officials with whom we met took a dim view of the value of better law enforcement.  Some argued that families need the children's income and that children would be pushed into more marginal and dangerous occupations.  Others contended that law enforcement was irreparably ineffective and, therefore, not worth pursuing, even when they were themselves responsible for ensuring effective law enforcement.  The Ministry of Labour does not even advocate prosecuting employers, relying instead on "awareness raising" and funding transitional schools that reach a tiny fraction of children outside the formal education system.  Labour Secretary Vaish told Human Rights Watch, "Our approach in the last four years is a promotional and educational approach, not prosecutions and punishment.  We have to convince parents that it is not right to send their child for labor and not for school.  Our entire program is based on this approach."[5]  And Joint Secretary K. Chandramouli said:  "Now in the present situation, I don't think this particular kind of action [prosecution of employers] needs to be taken.  Either [employers] have learned to circumvent the law or else they are not employing children."[6]

The NHRC's involvement is very positive, and some children have been freed and rehabilitated in the few areas that it has focused on.  However, its resources and power are limited.  The NHRC is not a law enforcement agency and cannot substitute for those who are legally responsible for enforcing the law. 

Rehabilitation of bonded child laborers is critical-without it, children who are freed are likely to become bonded again.  Legally mandated rehabilitation programs for both bonded and child labor remained promising but extremely limited.  Money alone is not the problem:  government moneyallocated for rehabilitating bondedlaborers and for establishing transitional schools for child workers (National Child Labour Project schools) remains unspent each year.  Instead, the problem is political will.

Schools run by international and domestic NGOs designed to get former child workers back into formal schooling have had positive effects in the limited areas where they operate.  However, most children do not have access to these schools, and the programs are not getting the government support, especially from law enforcement, that they need.  Without protection and support from the government, bonded children cannot leave their employers to attend school.  Even where children are able to reach the schools, they may face harassment and pressure from employers to return to work.  They are also still held accountable for their debts, which families may negotiate to pay by passing the debt on to another sibling who will labor in the child's place.  Tellingly, eight years after former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced that two million children would be removed from hazardous labor by 2000, the secretary of the Ministry of Labour told Human Rights Watch that the goal had been pushed back to 2005.[7]

This report documents what has happened since Human Rights Watch's 1996 report, focusing on bonded child labor in India's silk industry.  Human Rights Watch chose to focus on the silk industry because it has received relatively less attention by the NHRC and the international community than other industries such as handwoven carpets; because it has an export market; because it is present in various states; and because the Indian government, by heavily regulating and subsidizing the industry, is in an especially favorable position to intervene to stop the use of bonded child labor.

Boiling cocoons, hauling baskets of mulberry leaves, and embroidering saris, children are working at every stage of the silk industry.  Conservatively, more than 350,000 children are producing silk thread and helping to weave saris.  These stages are the focus of this report because they are the stages most reliant on bonded children.  The children work twelve or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a week, under conditions of physical and verbal abuse. Starting as young as age five, they earn from nothing at all to around Rs. 400 (U.S.$8.33) a month, some or all of which is deducted against loans ranging from around Rs. 1,000 to 10,000 (U.S.$21 to $208).[8]

In the factories and workshops that make silk thread, children suffer injuries from the machines and from sharp threads.  Sericin vapors from the boiling cocoons, smoke, diesel fumes from the machines, and poor ventilation cause respiratory ailments such as chronic bronchitis and asthma.  From immersion in scalding water and handling dead worms, reelers' hands become raw, blistered, and sometimes infected.  Twelve-year-old T. Basheer worked in a silk reeling unit until twenty-five days before we interviewed him at an NGO-run day school.  "Boiling water falls on your hand," he told us.  "You are always in water, standing in it.  The skin on your hands and feet peels off.  It gets loose."[9] Anesha K., eleven years old, started working when she was nine and had been at an NGO-run residential school for four months when we interviewed her.  She showed us lumpy scars on her hands and explained:  "I didn't like working because my hands would get infected.  I got holes in my hands because I put them in the hot water and then they got infected.  I couldn't eat.  I had to eat with a spoon."[10]  Anesha K.'s shins, ankles, and feet were covered with burn scars from boiling water.

Sitting at crowded silk looms for long stretches of time exposes children to a variety of health problems.  The rooms are often damp and poorly ventilated; children sit with their legs tucked under them or dangling down into the pit beneath the loom.  Contagious diseases, especially tuberculosis anddigestive disorders, spread easily inthe crowded rooms.  Poor lighting and constant visual strain damages the eyesight.  The fine silk threads cut the fingers, and the cuts are difficult to heal properly.

Children frequently complained that employers beat them and abused them verbally.  Nine-year-old P. Ningamadiah told Human Rights Watch:  "At work the supervisor used to beat me with a belt.  He tied me up and beat me with a belt on my back.  He did this two or three times. . . .  He tied a chain that was attached to the wall to my leg."[11]

Both boys and girls are bonded in the silk industry.  However, girls' work tends to be less visible.  Girls, especially in Muslim families, may have the work brought to them in their homes instead of going out to work; this places them outside the protection of the child labor law.  Girls typically perform household labor in addition to income-generating work; household labor is typically not shared by boys and is often not considered to be work at all.  Where girls do go out to work, as in Kanchipuram, they are more likely to remain lower-paid assistants, less likely to become weavers.  Girls are also less likely to be sent to school and may be less likely to access remedial programs, such as night schools, that do not take into account additional barriers including limitations on their ability to travel at night or for long distances to reach a school.  Abuses against girls, including sexual abuse by employers, are noted throughout the report.

Human Rights Watch's investigation covered three states prominent in the silk industry.  In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, most attention has been paid to child labor in the carpet industry, but the limited attention to silk has pushed the child labor that was in factories into individual homes.  In Tamil Nadu in the south, which has identified more bonded laborers than any other state, the state government has simply abandoned the Supreme Court's rehabilitative framework for any children found working in hazardous occupations after 1997, in clear violation of the Court's order.  In Kanchipuram, a major silk sari weaving area in Tamil Nadu, child bondage is open, and the district collector, instead of prosecuting employers, has opened night schools for working children.  In the southern state of Karnataka, silk thread production still depends almost entirely on bonded children.  The state government has promulgated a plan to eliminate all child labor; this plan was not in operation at the time of Human Rights Watch's investigation. 

Poverty, Education and Caste

Poverty contributes to bonded child labor, but it is not the only cause.  A lack of access to credit and lack of a concerted social welfare scheme to safeguard against hunger and illness; inaccessible, low quality, and discriminatory schools; the lack of employment and living wages for adults; corruption and apathy among government officials; and historical economic relationships based on the hierarchy of caste are other key elements.  Moreover, bonded children are likely destined for poverty as adults, and likely to bond their own children in order to survive.  Fourteen-year-old Ashish M. told Human Rights Watch that he could not leave his loom owner because he was paying off an advance, which in two years he had reduced from Rs. 2,500 (U.S.$52) to Rs. 475 ($9.90).  "The owner pays but deducts for the advance," he said.  "He deducts but won't write off the whole advance. . . .  We only make enough to eat."[12] With wages too low to survive, workers are forced to keep borrowing from their employers, ensuring that they never pay off all of their debts, even though their labor has, in fact, paid them many times over.  And as NHRC Special Rapporteur Chaman Lal explained, "poverty is one of the causes of child labor but also one of the consequences-because it is so cheap it causes adult unemployment and wage suppression."[13]

The current attention to education is a critical step in addressing child labor, even though there is a long way to go before all children have access to quality, nondiscriminatory education.  Along with the Indian government, many organizations, including domestic and international NGOs, the World Bank, the United States (U.S.) Department of Labor, and United Nations (U.N.) bodies are funding and running education programs.  These efforts are commendable.  But they will bypass children working under force, including bonded children, without legal compulsion of employers.  The Indian government itself must enforce its own laws.  These other organizations must strongly urge the government to do so, if their own programs are to succeed.

One of the foundations of bonded labor is the caste system, through which a traditional expectation of free labor, lack of land, and the threat of violence and social and economic boycotts from upper castes conspire to keep many so-called untouchables, or Dalits, in bondage and a perpetual state of poverty.[14]  Nationwide, the vast majority of bonded laborers are Dalits; almost all bonded children interviewed for this report were Dalit or Muslim.  Dalits are generally in a state of economic dependency that, when combined with the threat of, or actual, violence, prevents them from reporting abuses against them-including being held in bondage-or from getting justice if they do.  Human Rights Watch has extensively documented police abuse of Dalits, religious minorities, women, and street children, among others.[15] The need for widespread police reform has also been documented by numerous Indian human rights groups and the NHRC, and is part of the larger problem of people's inability to access justice.

Thus, while education and poverty-reduction programs are extremely important, if the caste aspects of bonded labor are not addressed, these programs will not change the actual power dynamics and economic relationships that perpetuate bonded labor in India.

India's Legal Obligations

Both Indian and international law prohibit the use of bonded child labor.  As a party to international instruments such as the Convention on the Suppression of Slave Trade and Slavery; the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery; the Forced Labour Convention; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, India is obliged to prohibit all forms of slavery, including debt bondage, child servitude, and forced labor, as well as affirmatively protect children from economic exploitation and hazardous work.  Bonded child labor is also specifically identified as among the "worst forms of child labour" by ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which India has not ratified.

India must also take measures to realize its commitments under international law to provide free and compulsory primary education and available and accessible secondary education to every child.

Indian law has long prohibited bonded labor, and regulated and restricted child labor up to age fourteen.  The practice of bonded child labor violates various provisions of Indian law, including the constitutional rights to life and liberty; the prohibition on trafficking, begar (explained below, section "Indian Law"), and other similar forms of forced labor; the prohibition on employment of children under age fourteen in factories, mines, or other hazardous occupations; and other constitutional protections for children.[16]  Labor by children under age fourteen in industries deemed hazardous, including all aspects of the silk industry, is expressly forbidden.

Since the Indian Supreme Court's December 1996 decision in M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors., states have been obligated to identify children employed illegally, including those in work the Child Labour Act deems as "hazardous" and prohibits entirely; to remove the children, fine the employer Rs. 20,000 (U.S.$417), and deposit the fines in a rehabilitation-cum-welfare fund; to use the income from the fund to rehabilitate the child; to either employ an adult family member or contribute an additional Rs. 5,000 (U.S.$104) to the fund; and to prosecute employers.  The Court ordered the Ministry of Labour to monitor the M.C. Mehta decision's implementation.

The Court further elaborated on this framework in 1997 in Bandhua Mukti Morcha, et al., v. Union of India and Ors., ordering states to "evolve steps" to provide: 

(1) compulsory education to all children either by the industries itself or in co-ordination with it by the State Government to the children employed in the factories, mine or any other industry, organised or unorganised labour with such timings as is convenient to impart compulsory education, facilities for secondary, vocational profession and higher education; (2) apart from education, periodical health check-up; (3) nutrient food etc. . . .

Scope and Methodology

This report is not meant to be an exhaustive survey of all bonded child labor or implementation of the law in all of India.  Rather, it is based on field investigations of bonded child labor in the silk industry in three states:  Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka.  Human Rights Watch chose these three states because they are major silk thread and sari producing areas, they illustrate varied involvement of the National Human Rights Commission, and they are geographically diverse.  While the report focuses on silk, it could have been written about any number of industries.  Additional research could also be conducted on progress made by states with higher literacy rates and lower use of bonded child labor, such as Kerala, and NGO initiatives such as the M. Venkatarangaiya Foundation in Andhra Pradesh.

Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in India in March and April 2002 and subsequently by telephone and electronic mail from New York.  During the course of our investigation, we spoke with over 155 people, including fifty-four children, as well as teachers, parents, loom owners, traders, activists, academics, lawyers, and government officials at the district, state, and national levels.  The youngest bonded child whom we interviewed was seven years old; however, children reported that they began work as young as age five.  Almost all non-Muslim bonded children whom we interviewed belonged to Dalit and low-caste communities.  In Karnataka, we interviewed children whom NGOs had withdrawn from work and placed in NGO-run residential schools, although many had been working until a few days or weeks before the date we interviewed them.  We spoke with most children outside their workplaces.  The names of all children have been changed to protect their privacy and preclude potential employer retaliation.  In addition, some government officials and human rights activists requested anonymity, highlighting the sensitive nature of child bondage.

In this report, in accord with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the word "child" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen.[17]

[1] Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery:  Bonded Child Labor in India  (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 1996), http://hrw.org/reports/1996/India3.htm.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with Joseph Gathia, Director, Centre of Concern for Child Labour, New Delhi, April 1, 2002.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Vinod Vaish, Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, New Delhi, April 2, 2002.  Secretary Vaish was replaced P.D. Shenoy in June 2002, when he was appointed Secretary of the Department of Telecommunications.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with K. Chandramouli, Joint Secretary for Child Labour, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, New Delhi, April 2, 2002.

[5] Human Rights Watch interview with Vinod Vaish, Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, New Delhi, April 2, 2002.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with K. Chandramouli, Joint Secretary for Child Labour, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, New Delhi, April 2, 2002.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with Vinod Vaish, Secretary, Ministry of Labour, New Delhi, April 2, 2002.

[8] The exchange rate is calculated at Rs. 48/U.S.$1.  Where U.S. dollar amounts are greater than $10, amounts are rounded to the nearest dollar.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with twelve-year-old boy, Ramanagaram, Karnataka, March 29, 2002.  All children's names have been changed to protect their identities. 

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with eleven-year-old girl, Ramanagaram, Karnataka, March 29, 2002.  Many Indians eat with their right hand and do not use silverware.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with nine-year-old boy, Magadi, Karnataka, March 27, 2002.

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with fourteen-year-old boy, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, March 13, 2002.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Chaman Lal, Special Rapporteur on Bonded Labour and Child Labour, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi, March 11, 2002.

[14] Human Rights Watch has extensively documented caste-based violence and discrimination, and the connection with bondage in India and elsewhere.  See Human Rights Watch, Broken People:  Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables" (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 1999), http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/; Human Rights Watch, "Caste Discrimination:  A Global Concern," A Human Rights Short Watch Report, vol. 13, no. 3(g), August 2001, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/globalcaste/caste0801-03.htm#P292_53595; Human Rights Watch, Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 1995), http://www.hrw.org/reports/1995/Pakistan.htm.

[15] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, "Epidemic of Abuse:  Police Harassment of HIV/AIDS Outreach Workers in India," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 14, no, 5(c), July 2002, http://hrw.org/reports/2002/india2/; Human Rights Watch, "'We Have No Orders to Save You'-State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 14, no. 3, April 2002, http://hrw.org/reports/2002/india/; Human Rights Watch, Broken People; Human Rights Watch, Police Abuse and Killings of Street Children in India (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996), http://hrw.org/reports/1996/India4.htm; Human Rights Watch, "India:  Communal Violence and the Denial of Justice," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 2, April 1996, http://hrw.org/reports/1996/India1.htm.

[16] Constitution of India, arts. 21, 23, 24.

[17] Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines as a child "every human being under the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier."  Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/REX/44/25 (entered into force September 2, 1990, acceded to by India December 11, 1991), art. 1.