NEW DELHI – My childhood arrived late. Born to an impoverished family in a stone quarry in Rajasthan, I knew how to crack rocks before I could spell my name. My parents were bonded laborers, and as soon as I could hold a hammer, I was, too. We were paid little and could barely afford to eat. My earliest memories are of being someone’s slave: my breath was mine, but my body and spirit were not.
This was the tragedy that my family, and generations of our ancestors, were forced to endure. Miraculously, I eventually escaped. Across India, most bonded laborers never do.
Any type of slavery is debasing, but bonded child labor – forcing a young person to work to pay off a family debt – is among the cruelest forms of abuse. The cycle goes like this: desperate for the money needed to feed their hungry families, people take out loans with exorbitant interest rates. Then, when they become unable to repay, they are left with nothing to offer as collateral except their bodies – and the bodies of their family members.
Once debtors are ensnared, they are subject to all manner of mistreatment. Employers act like mafia bosses, and their thugs pose a constant threat to bonded laborers’ wellbeing. The majority of these debts can never be repaid, and, rather than dying with the debtor, liabilities are simply transferred from one generation to the next. Most of those working under such conditions never permit themselves to imagine leading a normal life again.
In addition to quarries, many factories that produce clothing, shoes, jewelry, and sporting goods exploit bonded laborers in claustrophobic conditions with little sunshine or fresh air. Accidents are common; I have heard stories of young workers cutting themselves while using dangerous machinery, and then being refused treatment by greedy owners unwilling to slow down production. For bonded laborers, basic amenities are inadequate, education is nonexistent, and children often end up stunted and deformed from malnutrition and being forced to sit in one position for extended periods.
Worldwide, human trafficking is the third-largest source of “black money” – illicit gains from tax evasion, corruption, and crime. The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor alone generates some $150 billion in illegal revenue every year.
Much of that money is tied to India, where eight children go missing every hour, on average – young bodies that are bought and sold for less than the price of cattle. Once under the command of criminal syndicates, these trafficked children are forced to work up to 16 hours a day and are often abused mentally, physically, and sexually. Some girls are even pushed into prostitution by sweatshop owners or sold as domestic workers in India’s largest cities. These children are being robbed not only of their freedom, but also of childhood itself.
I am among the lucky ones. In May 2001, when I was seven years old, anti-child labor activists working with Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for his work, raided the Jaipur quarry where I was enslaved. Satyarthi offered me a place at Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation and training center for victims of child labor run by the organization he founded, Bachpan Bachao Andolan. Not long after, I was given the opportunity to study formally, and last year, I graduated with a law degree from Janhit College of Law.
Satyarthi’s vision is to ensure that birth is never an automatic sentence to a life of servitude. This commitment has enabled thousands of children like me to do something I once thought impossible: to dream. Children are the foundation of a peaceful and prosperous future. The only way to build a strong, empowered, and vibrant India is to guarantee that every child is free, educated, and healthy.
Today, I am all of that and more. And yet many children across the country remain trapped in the nightmare of bondage. We must help them escape, too. If we succeed, bonded labor in India – an institution that has devastated millions of lives for centuries – will finally end with my generation.
The writer, a former bonded child laborer, is a lawyer and human rights activist.
Copyright: Project Syndicate.