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Despite laws, Indian children slave as cheap labor

October 11, 1997

EDITOR’S NOTE _ President Clinton signed a bill Friday banning imports produced with forced child labor. Many of the exploited children live in Asia; 14-year-old Ram Kishan personifies the type of exploitation the new law hopes to help eradicate.



Associated Press Writer

BEHLAPA, India (AP) _ When Ram Kishan grows up, he wants to belong to himself. Until then, he will be the property of a stone quarry owner he has never met.

But Kishan, whose sad eyes reveal an experience that seems far beyond his 14 years, realizes that his dream may never come true: He is much too deep in debt to be able to free himself.

For three years, Kishan has worked in a stone quarry an hour’s drive outside the Indian capital, New Delhi. He labors 10 hours a day clearing earth that is caked on stone boulders before they are crushed to be sold to construction companies.

President Clinton signed a law Friday limiting the import of goods produced by children in the Indian subcontinent, but critics here say millions of young workers like Kishan will not be saved by such moves.

Kishan’s job is backbreaking, especially in summer, when temperatures soar to 117 degrees. Still, he speaks of his trials in a matter-of-fact way.

``Circumstances have forced me to work. But if I don’t work, what will I eat?″ he asks.

Three years ago, poverty forced Kishan to leave his small village in central India and come to Delhi to work for a daily wage ranging between 57 cents and 85 cents, depending on the whim of his master.

He cannot leave because he believes he owes his master hundreds of dollars given to him as advance for explosives and crowbars used for his work.

If Kishan is injured or killed during work, his family will not receive compensation for his death. There are no records of his employment; he has no identity card. Legally, he does not exist.

Kishan’s story is similar to millions of other children in the Indian subcontinent who work in labor-intensive industries, including mining, the manufacture of fireworks, carpet weaving, brick kilns, agriculture, stone quarries and bangle-making.

In India and other parts of south Asia, poor people pledge themselves and their children into virtual slavery, called bonded labor, to pay off debts.

Labor rights organizations estimate there are at least five million bonded adult laborers and at least 65 million bonded child laborers in India.

Although laws against human slavery have been in force in India for two decades, the government has failed to identify, liberate and rehabilitate bonded laborers, activists say.

``There is lack of political will,″ said Swami Agnivesh, head of the Bonded Laborers Freedom Front, an organization fighting indentured labor for more than 15 years.

The U.S. legislation shows there may be more political will abroad, but Indian child rights activists say such bans will do nothing for children whose parents sell them into slavery because of extreme poverty.

``In a country where child labor is so pervasive that it has hardly left any industry untouched, what all will they ban?″ Agnivesh said.

Child rights activists say governments that are sympathetic to the plight of child workers should use their money and clout to enforce compulsory education for children, so they will leave jobs open for unemployed adults.

``Child labor has depressed the general wage level of adult workers,″ Agnivesh added.

Earlier this week, Kishan got a break from months of work when he joined a camp in Behlapa organized by Agnivesh for bonded child laborers. For three days, Kishan and dozens of children like him got a chance to play, eat and enjoy being a child.

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