NEW DELHI — With their small, nimble fingers, India's "carpet kids" can tie fine knots. The smaller the knot, the greater the value of an Indian carpet.
The Indian Supreme Court heard that argument last November as it ordered the release of 319 of the tens of thousands of the country's wretched child weavers. They are bonded laborers--virtual slaves--in the infamous carpet factories of Mirzapur, in northern India, which sells its fine carpets mostly in the United States.
The children are among an estimated 5 million people working as bonded laborers in India, according to welfare and human rights groups.
Bonded laborers, like indentured servants, are working off debts in the brutal feudal system that persists in the world's largest democracy.
"They are non-beings, exiles of civilization, living a life worse than that of animals," Chief Justice P. N. Bhagwati said.
Repayment for Loans
Children are sold into bondage by impoverished parents to repay loans, perhaps for a buffalo, a daughter's marriage or a tiny plot of land.
The children sometimes pay with a lifetime of toil--and even their blood.
Bonded labor is illegal in India, but child labor is banned only in certain hazardous jobs. The laws are openly violated, and slave-keepers are seldom punished.
In Mirzapur's factories there are 120,000 children among the 600,000 weavers. Many of the children are bonded, but the exact number is not known.
The Supreme Court was told that some children as young as 6 are beaten, branded, tortured, herded like cattle, fed foul food or allowed to go hungry.
They are physically confined to wretched quarters and forced to work 12 to 16 hours a day, the court was told.
A court-appointed commission reported that some children were tied, slung on a tree and dropped repeatedly to the ground, wrenching their joints, because they asked to go to the toilet.
Twelve-year-old Bhola Bhuiya showed court investigators welts in his armpits and bruises over his body. He was beaten with a baton over his right eye when he relieved himself without permission.
The All-India Carpet Manufacturers' Assn. denies that any children are abused.
"It is true we need nimble fingers for fine weaving," said Ashfaque Waziri, president of the association. "But the children are not slaves, they are employees of loom owners."
$114 Million a Year
The Mirzapur carpet industry, one of India's biggest, earns $114 million a year in foreign exchange.
Only tiny fingers can tie the 400 knots per square inch of a top-quality Mirzapur carpet. The art of weaving, Waziri said, "only can be learned when you are around 10."
There are many Mirzapurs across India--quarries, match and fireworks factories, cigarette plants, slate mines, electric bulb works.
India's child labor force is officially placed at 17.5 million, but unofficially--and probably more accurately--it is estimated at as high as 100 million. There are about 300 million children in India.
The number of bonded children is estimated at 1 million by Swami Agnivesh, a former professor turned Hindu monk. He has been harassed and has spent three years in jails for his crusade against bonded labor, which has threatened powerful interests.
Outlawed in 1976
Bonded labor was officially outlawed in 1976, and all debts were canceled. But it exists and even flourishes in abjectly poor rural areas controlled by ruthless landlords, organized crime bosses and unscrupulous politicians.
Child labor is legal, considered a necessary evil and an economic imperative. Even Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi says it cannot be abolished overnight.
Parliament recently passed a controversial bill regulating child labor. It bans children from the most difficult and dangerous jobs, limits their ages and specifies rest hours and working conditions.
Most people doubt that it will help--like the 11 other laws on bonded and child labor.
"No words can describe the horror and torture of the slaves," Swami Agnivesh said.
Govinda Mukhoty, a London-educated lawyer and president of the People's Union for Democratic Rights, said: "It is a terrible situation. We talk of democracy and taking India into the 21st Century, but see what we have--slaves, destitutes and orphans."
Human rights lawyer Jose Verghese, who pleaded for the carpet kids before the Supreme Court, said, "The tragedy is that despite the proved existence of slaves, not a single slaver has been punished with imprisonment."
All of India's anti-slavery laws, he said, "are observed more in violations than in practice."
In the last five years, he said, 7,000 cases of slavery were registered, but only 117 slavers were convicted. None went to jail, and all got off with fines as low as $6 to $40.
Indian law provides only a maximum three years' imprisonment for keeping bonded labor.
Some carpet kids were freed after a court-appointed commission reported their agony.
"The children emphatically stated they were confined and not allowed to move freely, they were forced to work 12 to 16 hours day, often beaten and tortured," the commission reported. "Their food was unwholesome and insufficient to fill their bellies."
Another report, by lawyer Verghese, said: "The children were awakened early morning and forced to work until late night. They were allowed to sleep only for two hours, herded into a small room and locked in."
The commission could identify only 637 children by name, and only 319 of those could be located and freed. The other 318 were hidden by village loom owners, and their whereabouts are not known.
The court ordered the released children to be sent back to their villages, enrolled in school and helped to lead normal lives.
But their prospects are grim back home in their impoverished hamlets.