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The International Writers Magazine
: Child Labour in India

A Walk in Dharavi
Reva Sharma

Dharavi. Asia’s 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.

Walking 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 India’s 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 ‘humble’ beginnings.

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 steady rhythm.

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 ‘owners.’
‘They’ll 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.

I 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 India’s 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.

Mohsin’s 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 don’t get much food, just plain rice most days and I don’t 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.
Mohsin’s 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. Asia’s biggest slum
© Reva Sharma June 2005

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