Another Indian - an addition to a very small number - now has a Nobel Prize. Kailash Satyarthi.
Never met him.
But a little over two decades ago, I decided to chuck journalism and do ‘real things’ on the back of happenstance - leading up to six months of close encounters with Satyarthi’s campaigns.
Chasing L K Advani to Vaishali, Bihar, to report on his first public rally after the Babri Masjid demolition, I happened to share the train compartment with two gentlemen from one of the finest carpet makers in the world. The gentlemen were carrying on a legacy in carpet making that spanned over a century. They were two of the handful of ‘square’ businessmen in a trade that was fundamentally crooked, nasty, rapacious and exploitative.
Delighted to find themselves with a ‘reasonable’ journalist, they invited me over to Mirzapur (the epicenter of carpet making in India) to see for myself the issue that had the Carpet industry in turmoil.
A gentleman called Senator Tom Harkin had set in motion an anti-child labour bill that would wipe out Indian carpet exports to the US. The discussions over the next few months ended in my taking up a job in Mirzapur (fondly christened Miserypur by its residents) to get involved in weeding out children working on looms.
Over the next six months, I roamed the villages of Mirzapur and Bhadohi — in the stretch from Allahabad to Varanasi — visiting looms, sitting in on industry discussions and meeting government officials.
The man who was hogging the headlines was Kailash Satyarthi. Having launched his career on child labour, Satyarthi was quick to latch on to his real audience: The West. Raids were carried out on all “suspect” organizations to oblige hungry news channels and news publications.
It isn’t really strange that “Satyarthi who?” was the common reaction even among serious media persons in India when the Nobel Prize was announced. They were never his “target audience”.
Having jettisoned from Swami Agnivesh whose Bandhua Mukti Morcha had set the ball rolling on bonded labour, Satyarthi quickly built himself a reputation on child labour.
His methods were much the same of many a NGO working in India - generate bad and indiscriminate publicity in the West, magnify the issue globally by extreme visualization and hope the world turns the screws on India. His American-European support base is evident not only in the awards that have been on him showered by organizations there, but also that the European Parliament nominated him for the Nobel prize.
Whatever his path, there is little doubt that the Satyarthi factor unleashed enough terror 20 years ago among the carpet barons to force them to substantially clean up their act. There is little doubt that the carpet industry needed a Satyarthi to goad it into action. Left to themselves, despite the dollars, most of them were petty shopkeepers who didn’t care much either for product quality or human values.
Some quick points of reference: Carpet ‘factories’ don’t make carpets. Carpets are made in village homes on looms that the householder owns. It was rare then to find large, consolidated loom-holders. These looms were spread across a territory that ranged from Gorakhpur to Agra but the main concentration was in the Mirzapur-Bhadohi-Varanasi belt. Each entrepreneur-villager is a freeholder and can take a contract as he pleases. He shifts allegiances based on the best price and order though quality conscious companies make a lot of effort to ensure that highly skilled loom-holders don’t move to others.
At any given time, a village house could have multiple looms, each working for carpets on order from different companies. Children and women of the house often joined in.
The household members were different from the children brought in – typically from Bihar – as bonded labour. The parents of ‘bonded children’ had handed them over to pay off a loan they had taken from the contractor. With different companies having different levels of sensitivity to the child labour issue, often a loom-holder would have only adults working on a carpet for the company that insisted on adult labour while 12 to 14 year-olds were at work on another loom where a carpet for another less-‘sensitive’ company was being woven.
Children, incidentally, made for poor weavers as they neither had the skills nor was the much publicized “nimble fingers” of much use.
Here then are notes from two decades ago, written more as a record of ‘stories’ I saw. (Needless to say, I returned to journalism post haste once the realization dawned that I was unlikely to ever figure out colours, designs and knots.) Please note that these are notes from 1993 – unchanged – so the data points are that much old.
ENTREPRENEURS WITHOUT ENTERPRISE
For all the money that the carpet industry makes – and that too in greenbacks – the carpet barons are little more than ‘dukandaars’ – a term preferred by the Imperial British over the present profusion of ‘exporters’, ‘manufacturers’ and ‘traders’. Very little of the Rs 800 crore that the Mirzapur-Bhadohi-Varanasi belt earns is ploughed back or invested in capital intensive ventures that would take the industry to the next level. Instead, the money goes into purchase of land and building of ‘fortresses’.
The lack of enterprise is evident in the dependence of the industry on visiting buyers and agents. Marketing is an alien concept – as true for the market leaders as for the smallest of firms.
Worse, the industry has little use for innovation – popular designs are churned out in bulk till the market collapses or shifts to another quality or design. The limited innovations of the market leaders are copied overnight without even a by-your-leave. And yet the lure of easy money is adding ‘entrepreneurs’ to the carpet industry almost every other day.
CHILD LABOUR IN THE CARPET INDUSTRY
When one of the market leaders surveyed the looms, they found that around 9 per cent of the workforce were children below the age of 14. When the company had finished cleaning up their act, they had suffered a 30 per cent loss of production as other loom holders moved out as well.
The biggest deterrent to removing children from the looms was not the commonly argued loss of livelihood for families but the fear that it would mean surrendering production (looms) to less scrupulous companies. However, with Senator Harkin (Note: This was written in the year 1993) threatening legislation that would effectively choke off import of Indian carpets into the US, the industry is becoming increasingly aware that the rules are beginning to change.
Their response has been pure panic.
WHO IS A CHILD?
The Indian law says one below the age of 14. The ILO says less than 15 at the very least. If Harkin has his way, the carpet industry would have to do better than the Indian law.
Of course, the question remains as to whether a child is a child. Working on the loom in his undervest, Dinesh looks 12. The labour department books the loom owner. Photographed with his clothes on, he looks 15 and the Deputy labour Commissioner, Allahabad, admits as much. The final judge as per the Factory’s Act is the CMO.
And the going price for a CMO certificate is Rs 180.
NGOS: SOCIAL ACTIVISTS OR INTERNATIONAL DRAMATISTS?
(The headline is as written 20 years ago)
When Kailash Satyarthi raided Ramkanthi, he had a rich haul. 150 children were ‘caught’ on looms. Photographers came along for the ‘raid’, the local media went to town and even the Delhi edition of the Times of India carried on its front page a brief story.
An indignant buzz arose from the carpet barons who had tales of 15-year-olds being included to satisfy the ‘target’ head count and rice being scattered on the ground and children forced to eat it for the benefit of accompanying media.
A little different is the story of a reasonably large sized company with a strong anti-child labour policy. They had no children on their looms. And yet Kailash Satyarthi raided and “found” children on their looms. Since it was the market leader, it made helluva lot of sense to target them. Not to be outdone, the company checked and found that neither the loom belonged to them nor had Satyarthi got his facts right.
In desperation, they handed Satyarthi a list of all looms weaving for them and asked him to check it out.
They haven’t heard from him since.
HIS FATHER’S LOOM
Is there a difference between the child who has been ‘recruited’ from Palamu (one of the poorest and drought hit districts of Bihar) by a loom-owner for Rs 2000 to be trained in the art of knotting by hand on an exquisite “leechi” and the boy who helps his father at his loom?
The boy from Bihar is escaping starvation but is tied to the loom — away from home, dependent on food and shelter from his master who maybe as merciful as his conscience allows him to be.
For the boy at home, life is much more easygoing. He doesn’t sit on the loom till he has had his fill of food, frolic and often a couple of hours at school under the big tree.
The Indian law says there is a difference. The ILO says there is none and Senator Tom Harkin is blissfully unaware that there is such a distinction. For the simple social engineering that Harkin ‘sahaab’ is doing, the consequences would be either be mind-bogglingly complex or a tired but typical Indian response of accepting what is fated and moving on.
Evidence of the former is the increasing number of women and girls on looms. Of the latter, there is sullen acceptance of having to close shop when the Labour and Factories department invade the area.
Carpet manufacturers sound a dire warning of the art dying out if children of the family are stopped from working on the loom.
(Postscript: 20 years later, it would interesting to see if the next generation left the loom for good because they didn’t learn the art at an early enough stage)
THE CHILD EARNER
There is little doubt that child labour benefits everyone – from the loom-owner to the bleeding heart exporters, sanctimonious customers, publicity and funds starved NGOs to the story-seeking media.
For the child earner, however, there are no options, no relief. Senator Harkin’s pious “This bill is about breaking the cycle of poverty by getting these kids out of factories and into schools” is just so many words.
For the Bill fails to tie up the deprivation of livelihood that it would entail to any means of staving off the resultant starvation.
ONE HUNDRED DAYS IN MISERYPUR
Tired and muddy, the Ganges lazily curls in and away from the city of Mirzapur, its sangam upstream a forgotten chapter as it courses listlessly past.
Spanning the river is the Lal Bahadur Shastri bridge – its toll gate demarcating ordered humanity from the chaos of neglect.
Mirzapur is the city of maliks and mazdoors, of dust and grime, of rubble strewn paths pretending to be roads, of filth and squalor and utter unconcern.
PUBLIC ENEMY NO.1: THE LABOUR DEPARTMENT
Deputy Labour Commissioner Pradeep Srivastava was leading his men on a child labour raid. Walking into the house of a loom holder, he saw the lady of the house pulling a quilt to cover two children. After a tug of war, the quilt was pulled aside and two ten-year olds leapt up and rushed out.
As Srivastava turned to follow, the woman barred his way and shut the door. Taking off her pallu, she advanced on the hapless deputy labour commissioner. “Shall I scream that you are molesting me? You, a government servant, will not only lose your job, the villagers will skin you alive.”
For a moment, Srivastava was dumbfounded. All his years in the field had not prepared him for this.
Humbled, he called his men off.
The labour department has no friends in the carpet industry. There are, of course, very few like Pradeep Srivastava. Most labour officers have chosen to cohabit with the carpet barons than live in penury. The result has been utter disregard for labour laws. The blame for child labour attaining such gigantic proportions must squarely lie with the labour department.