The International Writers Magazine: Child Labour in India
Walk in Dharavi
Asias biggest slum. 50 000 residents. 1000 child labour
factories. 100,000 people working illegally. The facts paint a
stark reality of one the poorest parts of the world. Even before
setting foot into Dharavi I had a vivid image of squalid poverty
and endless shantytowns embedded in my mind.
through the long muddy paths, surrounded by stray dogs and pigs feeding
on decomposing rubbish, the reality mirrored the statistics perfectly.
No public transport entered Dharavi. Row after row of small shabby factories
with tin roofs, no bigger than houses, made from scraps of old discoloured
metal undistinguishable to an outsider. This was Indias Zari Embroidery
industry. It was difficult to imagine that the exquisite outfits that
sell for thousands of pounds in London, and the United States have such
The factories were sweatshops, packed with children between the ages
of 8 and 14, working long hours for virtually no money, facing abuse
and malnutrition as a standard. Stopping at a blue bricked factory my
guide took me in to meet the owner. As my guide negotiated with him
in Hindi to let me speak to some of the children I took in the huge
frame of this grey haired angry looking individual. With a waving of
his sturdy arm I realised we had been granted permission. The conditions
were clear though. Only fifteen minutes, and no distracting the children.
Entering the work-shop was like stepping onto a chessboard.
Except instead of chess pieces there were children, perfectly spaced
in rows, each hunched over pieces of fine silk, sewing in a uniform
Mohsin saw me before I saw him. His small face and hazel eyes poked
through a crack in the window, his smile was cheeky, his clothes worn
and old; an oversized shirt, with a pen in its top pocket, he sat cross
legged with the other boys silently. Eight of them worked obediently
sewing tiny sequins on to a 6 foot piece of shiny magenta and orange
silk. Their fingers moved quickly and skilfully, it was difficult to
believe that this magnificent work of art was created by undernourished
boys, scared to look up from there work in fear of a scolding by their
Theyll finish this piece one day, the owner boasted.
The piece in question would quite easily fetch between 30 and 40 thousand
rupees in the air conditioned boutiques of Delhi or Mumbai, and triple
that amount in the United Kingdom or United States. It is a far cry
from the RS50 (the equivalent of 55p) the children were making for working
close to 100 hours per week.
sat next to Mohsin, looking for a nod of approval from the tobacco
chewing owner. Mohsin raised his hand Salaam! he said.
Mohsin told me about his family background, his father had died
when he was a baby and his mother lived in a flooded village in
Bihar, one of Indias poorest and most crime-ridden states.
He had come to Mumbai in search of work and had worked in this
factory since he was 9 years old.
story was true for most of the children who make up the child labour
industry. Extreme poverty had led them to Mumbai where they were readily
exploited by business owners looking for a cheap labour source. Was
he happy working here? I asked, looking over his shoulder and
lowering his voice he said We dont get much food, just plain
rice most days and I dont like that, and when we make mistakes
we get in big trouble. Then after a slight pause he continued,
But its better than being at home. Some days we had nothing to
eat there at all
As I left the poorly lit room I glanced at the pink and orange piece,
it no longer looked beautiful or exquisite, it was gaudy and grotesque.
Mohsins smile had disappeared, his eyes returned to the same zombie
like state, his posture was again hunched over and his fingers returned
to their skilled embroidery.
This was Dharavi. Asias biggest slum
© Reva Sharma June 2005
Lost Children of Pratham
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