Rescued from one of the many jewellery units that the western Indian city of Jaipur is famous for, 10-year-old Mohamed Akbar bore the tell-tale signs of hardship that he had just been lucky to escape.
His neck still covered with colours from the chemicals that he used in the workshop, Mohamed lamented how much he missed going to school.
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“My uncle brought me here – to Jaipur – because he also works in the industry. I get Rs50 ($0.8) every Sunday and my family gets paid by bank transfer. I didn’t want to go to school before, but now I want [to go],” he said.
His story, as also those of the other 50-odd children rescued last January in a joint operation by the non-profit Resource Institute for Human Rights (RIHR) and the anti-trafficking unit of the city police, brought to focus the grime, sweat and heartbreaks that invariably lie hidden beneath the glitter and glamour of an industry that by nature dazzles outsiders.
Known as the city of gems, Jaipur – the provincial capital of Rajasthan state – is one of India’s premier centres for exporting gems and jewels. Last year, exports – mainly to UAE, Hong Kong and the US – from the city totaled $41.8bn.
City of gems
Child rights activists, however, portray a far gloomier picture of the industry that is raking in revenues.
“We found the minors sticking jewels in bangles in a three storey building. Traffickers promise good jobs but their conditions are horrible – they work 15 hours a day in basements and are being exposed to chemicals that burn their skin,” says Amit Mehta, a member of the RIHR.
Forced to work from dawn to dusk, the children suffer from poor vision, burns, chronic cough and even finger malformation.
Required to handle tiny precious stones and deftly fix them in intricately designed bangles, the fragile fingers of the children are much in demand in the mostly basement workshops near Jaipur’s Johari Bazaar – jewels market – and Monak Chowk – the ruby square. And children, lured by promises of good pay and better life, arrive daily from distant places. Mohamed, incidentally, came from Bihar in the country’s east.
That Rajasthan is a preferred destination is not a surprise. Child labour thrives in the state, and according to 2011 census figures, more than 1.2 million Rajasthani children are engaged in work, with 50,000 of them employed in Jaipur alone.
Govind Beniwal, a member of the Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (RSCPCR), estimates that “there are 15 to 20 children daily brought to work in Jaipur”.
On paper though, Rajasthan has initiated several laudatory steps to stamp out the scourge. In 2012, the government of Rajasthan ratified the Protection Against Child Labour law formulated by the RSCPCR.
The policy established a standard operating procedure to rescue underage children who are employed, and steps to be taken against errant employers. Rajasthan also became the second state after Delhi to raise the minimum age for employment to 18.
The state policy also aimed to plug the loopholes in the national law – the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986.
“The national Act only bans children working in hazardous jobs – which only account for 10 percent of labour activities, but we have removed this concept and established that all jobs are hazardous for the child,” explains Depaak Kalara, former chairperson of the RSCPCR until January 2013.
But for both the trafficked children and the traffickers, stronger laws have made little difference.
“I don’t know my age but ustad [master] says I’m 14 years old,” said Murshid Alam, who also was rescued together with Mohamed Akbar in January. He looked much younger though.
In a country where poverty and deprivation are shared by millions, activists say the real remedy to the menace lie at both ends – the origin and final destination of the children.
“Centralised command procedures would help our role. But we also need an interstate action plan to prevent children who come to Rajasthan and to ensure they get proper rehabilitation in their states of origin,” said Govind Beniwal.
Non-government organisations say the community should be involved in the campaign against child labour. Rajasthan has recently launched an initiative, “Behel”, aiming to encourage workers to report illegal employment of minors against a cash reward of Rs25,000 ($404) in the industry they work.
Destined to fail
But Mahaveer Jain, a member of the Central Board on Child Labour in the Ministry of Labour and Employment, says the initiative is more of a gimmick that is destined to fail.
This phenomenon requires a holistic rehabilitation including education, parental support and long term guidance and counselling to families ...
“This phenomenon requires a holistic rehabilitation including education, parental support and long term guidance and counselling to families, as well as the punishment of the employer and recovering the fixed amount under the law and schemes,” he said.
That is easier said than done, more so because Jaipur’s gems and jewellery industry remains in denial despite the harsh reality of minors in its midst.
Sanjay Singh, director of GJEPC – Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council – says: “We’ve come across news reports about raids in the textile industry. There were no such instances in the gem and jewellery industry.”
So, it is business as usual in Jaipur, despite the occasional raids and rescues.
Ali Khan works in a gem polishing workshop in the Muslim area surrounding the bazaars of the city.
He works every day and has no holidays. Like every child, he loves to fly kites, but did not have the luxury of taking part in this year’s Makar Sankranti – the popular kite festival.
“Hopefully next year, I would have the chance,” he says wistfully. He was not after all among the children rescued this January. May be, he would get lucky next time round.
Follow Angel L Martinez on Twitter: @AngelLMartnez