Published by Colchester Evening Gazette
NAGASHWAR and the other slaves waited until their master was drunk on cheap whisky before escaping. As they ran for freedom Nagashwar realised one of his friends was still at the carpet factory. Leaving the others, he returned to find him.
But when he arrived back the master had awoken from his stupor, and took his fury at the escape out on Nagashwar. Demanding to know where the other children had gone, he beat him until he bled, but the young boy refused to say a word.
The next morning the master tied the terrified child up with rope, fetched a stove and heated it. He stuck an iron inside the stove until it was red-hot and then systematically went down the boy’s body, from neck to groin, branding him in the hope he would speak. But Nagashwar never said a word. After two-and-a-half hours of torture help arrived and he was saved.
Aid came in the form of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS). The group looked after Nagashwar, who was so traumatized he didn’t speak a word for months. The master is still at large and has not been charged with anything, but Nagashwar is back in his home town; a community leader teaching others their rights.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Nagashwar’s story is that it is not unique. There are plenty of children working in horrific conditions, but gradually many are being freed and are learning how to fight back. I visited India with Christian Aid, which funds SACCS. SACCS is responsible for rescuing more than 55,000 children and rehabilitating them in ashrams, or sanctuaries, where they are taught their rights, literacy and awareness. When they leave they are no longer victims, but fighters.
Kailash Satyarthi, the group’s founder and leader, is eloquent, resolute and amiable, traits that have enabled him to unlock many doors, sometimes literally, in his quest for a better India. Kailash isn’t just the founder of a pressure group; he’s an icon for thousands of people. He qualified as an engineer and was expected to go on to have a comfortable career and life, but after witnessing the injustices and inequalities of life in India, he gave it all up to pursue the eradication of child labour.
That was 20 years ago and it was a slow process, but gradually Kailash met like-minded people who began to make some noise. SACCS is not simply a talking shop though; as well as raising awareness, it raids factories where boys are forced to make carpets, and sets them free.
They are taken to places such as Mukti Ashram, an hour away from New Delhi. High brick walls surround the site and are there to prevent disgruntled factory owners getting in, not to stop anyone getting out. Inside, there are workshops where freed children are learning to mend motorbikes or sew cloth, and classrooms where they are taught to paint and read.
Everywhere we went the children were studying hard and clearly relished the work. These weren’t children waiting for the bell to end class, they were eager to hear the bell that started lessons. During my visit the children demonstrated how far they had come by singing freedom songs in a small hall. Surrounded by flaking white-washed walls, the boys had put on their best blue shirts and the girls wore bright pink, yellow and green dresses.
These children, who had been beaten, sexually abused and starved, were now shouting and punching the air with their mantras. It was a scene of raw courage and hope, young faces that were learning what it was like to be free and have power.
One of the girls was six-year-old girl Jasan, who was working in a field with her bonded family. Bonded families have taken a loan from their bosses, but the astronomical interest rates and penalties mean they effectively work for nothing. In some cases the parents agree to send their children away, in other instances they are simply kidnapped. Once the children are taken, they are locked in a carpet factory. They are beaten if they make a mistake, or if they laugh, cry or talk, and work up to 18 hour days.
The task itself, individually weaving the wool, creates night-blindness, poor joint movement, TB due to the dust, and destroys all self-confidence. One myth states that children are preferred as their hands are better suited to knitting the tight knots, but the real reason is because they are cheap.
Once SACCS finds out where a factory is it obtains a court order, breaks in and releases the children. They are then taken to one of three ashrams, where they are rehabilitated and given new skills. Kailash explained that not everyone approves of his organization and corruption, via the courts, police, and factory owners, is a major obstacle. Two of his team have been murdered, his house has been attacked and his daughter told that her daddy would be killed the following day. The final sanctuary we visited was Bal Ashram, close to Jaipur. On the way there we passed fields of families toiling away and saw several children working by the roadside under the burning sun.
Kailash arrived minutes after us. One child, Pradeep, stays close to Kailash the whole time. When Pradeep was born, another family in his village experienced bad fortune. Village leaders decreed that this was clearly no coincidence and that Pradeep was an evil soul who must be sacrificed. With the consent of his own parents, he was taken to a temple for the ceremony. But when the machete’s first blow failed to decapitate him, village custom meant he was spared, and simply abandoned. Now Pradeep clings to his rescuer and is determined to be like Kailash when he grows up.
While we talked another car came in carrying six children, the same children we had seen working by the roadside minutes earlier. This was the culmination of five months of talks between SACCS and the employer, who had been using an entire family to build the roads, and paid them 50 rupees a month for doing so, less than a quarter of the legal minimum wage. The youngest boy was only six. Some of them hadn’t washed for a week, one thought it may have been two months, he couldn’t remember. It was a stark reminder that while a lot of work has been doing, the problem is far from over.
- SACCS was formed in 1987 and is made up of more than 650 groups fighting child labour across South-East Asia.
- There may be up to 55 million children working in India; virtually the population of Britain.
- For more details visit www.globalmarch.org.uk or www.christian-aid.org.uk.