NEW DELHI - In cramped workshops in the inner city in Jaipur in northern India, young boys bend over low tables behind closed doors painstakingly sticking beads on bangles or embroidering fabrics. These handcrafted goods find their way to the city’s thriving markets, making it a magnet for shoppers from across the country.

Most customers who throng to Jaipur’s iconic markets are unaware that many of these attractively priced, glittering bangles are the product of child labor. But as demand has grown, Childline, a group that monitors child rights in Jaipur, estimates that the number of young boys trafficked into the city from poorer states to work in home-owned workshops has swelled to more than 100,000.

To end the use of child labor, state authorities and civil society groups have launched a major campaign to curb the practice in a city that is also a major tourist hub.

Most of the young boys are brought by traffickers from Bihar, an economically backward state in eastern India to work in the handicraft industry. 

Children trafficked for work

“What parents are told is we are taking your child for education and they will earn something and send back to you. But what actually happens in most cases is that they just give a lump sum amount at the time of taking the child,” said Varsha Joshi, Nodal Director, Childline, Jaipur. “All these children have now entered this arena: embroidery sector, bangle making sector, gem stone sector.”

The crackdown by child protection authorities to address the dark underside of the city is showing results: 350 children have been rescued in the last six months.

“We found them in very miserable condition confined in very small room with attached toilet. Not allowed to go out,” said Nishkam Diwakar, director, Department of Child Rights in Rajasthan state of which Jaipur is the capital. “They were supplied with food and water inside the room, given an assignment for the whole day and even thrashed and beaten if they did not fulfill the targets.”

Jaipur is not the only Indian city where child labor poses a challenge, but Rajasthan state has — among the highest numbers in the country — a quarter of a million children. Although India has made progress in curbing the practice over the last decade, there were still 4.35 million laborers aged between the ages of 5 and 14 in 2011, according to census data.

Handicraft industry

In Jaipur’s handicraft industry, campaigners say that manufacturers prefer children as they have nimble fingers to pick up and put tiny beads and fake gemstones on bangles or embroider an intricate design. And they work virtually as bonded labor for long hours with no breaks.

Campaigners are optimistic that the support thrown behind the campaign by the government will make a key difference. For example, authorities are taking steps to ensure more stringent action against those employing children and traffickers, hoping this will act as a deterrent.

Previously conviction rates were low because legal cases often fell through after the children were repatriated to their homes. It was tough to get them to come back to testify in a court, officials said. But now their statements are recorded in front of a magistrate before they are sent back, ensuring that courts can hand down jail terms to offenders.

Authorities have also ordered stricter monitoring at rail and bus stations to check children being brought into the city. But campaigners and child rights officials say it is also important for states from where the children are trafficked and their parents to ensure that they are kept in school. 

“They are somewhere cheated by their own ones, they are told you are going there for studies and then they found themselves in a trap,” Diwakar said.

In Jaipur’s thriving markets, volunteers work on another track: persuading the business community to boycott bangles and other goods made by child labor. The task is not easy. Some shop owners shrug, saying that they pick up their goods from middlemen and have no knowledge about where they come from.

Others admit that it is an “open secret” that these are made by children but point out that they have no choice but to buy those offered at cheaper rates to ensure that customers don’t turn away. 

“There is so much competition. Everyone wants to slash prices,” according to Wahid Hasan, a shop owner in Jaipur. “If I sell for a dollar and a half dollar, others offer it for one dollar.”

He is skeptical about the practice being curbed because much of the market demand is fueled by the low prices because of the cheap child labor.

But some upmarket stores have come on board. Boutique owner Shruti Misra carefully screens the workshops from where she orders clothes and accessories to ensure they do not employ children. That pushes up costs, but a tag of “child labor free garments” wins support from most people.

“The educated class is really good. I would say the younger generation talks about it,” according to Misra. She says when she explains why her prices are higher, people like the concept. “The social work and social entrepreneurship awareness is really happening in India right now.”

That is the goal: to persuade businesses and customers to walk away from products made by children to ensure that they don’t pay the price for the sparkle in Jaipur’s markets. It is still a long haul, campaigners admit, but a start has been made.

Child Marriage