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Meanwhile: For 15 million in India, a childhood of slavery

A new school for former child workers is expected to open in this town in the state of Tamil Nadu later this year. But 13-year-old Nallanayaki will not be enrolling. Since she was 9, Nallanayaki has labored 13 hours a day, six and a half or even seven days a week, in a silk weaving factory.

Nallanayaki cannot leave the silk loom until she pays the $146 loan her parents took from her employer. But her salary of less than 17 cents a day won't allow her to buy freedom until long after she is dead. Nallanayaki is a bonded laborer working in conditions of servitude. An estimated 15 million children are bonded in India.

Of course, bondage is illegal under Indian law. So is all child labor in the silk industry. The laws promise that employers will be prosecuted and children will be freed and sent to school. But the legislation is not being enforced.

In India in March, I found bonded children as young as age 7 working in the silk industry in the three states I visited, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Children making silk thread have to dip their hands in boiling water that burns and blisters them. They breathe smoke and fumes from machinery, handle dead silkworms that cause infections, and guide twisting threads that cut their fingers.

As they assist weavers, children sit at cramped looms in damp, dim rooms. They do not go to school and are often beaten by their employers. Some children I saw were working just down the road from government offices designated to protect them.

The abuse of the law in India is not limited to just three states; it is everywhere. Just last month, a nongovernmental organization rescued 13 children in Bombay. They were working 18 hours a day making gold thread. They were burned with hot tongs if they fell asleep.

After the first investigation of bonded child labor in 1996 by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, some promising steps were taken. In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court ordered the government to rehabilitate children working in industries, such as silk, that are deemed hazardous.

The National Human Rights Commission, with limited resources, persuaded some government officials to free and rehabilitate bonded children in a few areas, especially the carpet belt in Uttar Pradesh. But most government efforts did not reach beyond high- profile industries, like carpet weaving and handrolled cigarettes. Now the Indian government is backtracking. Officials say that child bondage is rare and that they have stopped prosecuting and punishing employers because it is no longer needed. This is simply not true.

Caste-based discrimination is at the heart of bonded labor. Nallanayaki, like the vast majority of bonded laborers, is a dalit, a so-called untouchable, on the lowest rung of India's caste system. Across India, dalits are segregated from their upper-caste counterparts, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and expected to perform free labor.

Bonded child labor is neither inevitable nor insurmountable. But it requires political will at all levels of the Indian government. This is where international aid donors can make a significant difference.

They should press the Indian government, especially the Ministry of Labor, to enforce its laws. In the areas where they fund schools and other programs for former child workers, donors should insist that local governments enforce the law.

Otherwise their programs will not reach the children who need them most those, like Nallanayaki, working to repay a debt that will probably be passed on to their children.

Zama Coursen-Neff is Counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and author of "Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India's Silk Industry".

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