The six children from small villages
near Allahabad and Bhadohi—in the carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh
in Northern India—never dreamed they could be free again. The
carpet mafia had kept them in bondage for years, confined to a dark
room and forced to hand weave rugs that would ultimately be exported
to Europe and America.
The daily routine for bonded children is basically all the same. These
children worked 12 hours each day, starting at 6 a.m. Their one meal
was eaten at about 10 a.m.—bread and a few lentils in water or
rice. Then they were forced to weave carpets until daylight grew dim
at 6 p.m., when the children stopped working because they could not
see the designs properly. Older boys were occasionally allowed to listen
to music, but most of the time there was no electricity. The workroom
had no windows and only one door. In the evenings, the children were
not allowed to move around freely in the village, but were confined
to the room with their loom. For years they had lived in this slavery.
On April 29th of this year, the Bal Vikas Ashram, a local center that
liberates and rehabilitates child slaves, organized a raid on the carpet
loom where these children were forced to weave carpets. I accompanied
government labor inspectors, two police officers and an activist from
the Ashram in the raid.
I was very anxious about participating in a raid and rescue operation,
because local and state law enforcement doesn’t always cooperate;
sometimes someone tips off the loom owners and they hide the children
before the raid; and sometimes middlemen try to disrupt the operation.
And it is dangerous, rescuers often risk their lives during raids. But
all I could think about was the children in bondage; I sympathized with
the hopelessness and desperation their parents were experiencing, not
knowing the whereabouts of their children all this time.
It was more than two hours’ drive to the loom. We stopped at several
places for fuel, and I noticed we were followed by a few men. I was
thinking maybe they would try to stop us or create hindrances, but they
It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached the village. Men
were working in the fields. Kids were playing; when they saw us, they
became silent. My mind was blank—everything became sort of mechanical.
We only had a few minutes to free the children. We ran into one dark
loom where about 15 to 20 young boys were weaving carpets, wearing only
underwear. It was a dark, stuffy, suffocating room with very dim light.
Five of the children turned out to be below 14 years old, others had
grown up in bondage. Some of them were so frightened and confused that
they tried to hide under bundles of wool.
I was trying to read what was going on in their minds, but it was difficult.
Did they know who we were or why we were there? When children are in
bondage, they are told that raid and rescue operations will lead to
them being hurt. They are told that the police take kids and beat them
up or put them in prison. One child started crying—I wanted to
console him, restore his trust, but I could not find the words.
The loom owner managed to escape, unfortunately, while his female relatives
claimed that the children were part of their family. We asked the children,
and found that none of them were even from the area.
During the raid, I studied how the policemen treated the children. I
saw one scolding a kid who refused to come out, and though I didn’t
like it, I could not interfere. After the raid, the children were brought
to a police station. The local police were very cooperative; they gave
food and beds to the traumatized children.
News spread and the loom owners gathered near the station while we were
inside the police station. They contacted the local legislative representative
or any other influential locals, trying to pressure us to withdraw the
case against them.
We wanted to complete all the formalities quickly—as the crowd
gathering outside the police station grew, so did the danger to ourselves
and the rescued children. After a raid in the same village a few years
ago, members of the rescue team were beaten up and two activists were
left disabled for life.
After we gave statements in front of a local judge, the children, too
traumatized to speak, were sent to the Bal Vikas Ashram. As I looked
into their faces, my happiness at their freedom did not last. I had
many fears and questions. I am afraid of what might happen if these
children fall prey to the carpet mafia again. Would they ever be reunited
with their families? What happens if their rehabilitation and education
is not continued once they leave the Ashram? And how many more children
must be suffering? Would the raids ever stop loom owners? Will loom
owners ever be convicted for their crimes? I know these questions have
no easy answers.
I first became interested in anti-slavery work when I was young. I was
curious to know why there is so much difference between the ‘haves’
and ‘have nots,’ especially for children. I began working
as a volunteer, and gradually anti-slavery work became my way of life
more than my profession. I had opportunities and exposure to work in
the field with a grassroots organization. But I don’t consider
myself a professional—a professional uses logic and reasoning
to solve a problem. I feel that logic has little relevance to issues
like ‘slavery’ and ‘bonded labor.’
There are many women who are working for human rights and against slavery
in India, but it is a challenging job. Every time we go into the field
we have to have a male colleague with us. Many times I have taken risks
while doing research, but I try to be careful. Presence of mind plays
an important role in handling such dangerous situations. I do not claim
that I have changed peoples’ perceptions, but I compel people
I am never content with my efforts and whatever I do to end slavery,
because I know there are still millions of children, women, and men
mentally and physically in bondage. Social injustice can be resolved
only by changing one’s consciousness, and to change one’s
consciousness one has to be heroic, courageous, and struggle through
all life situations.
Supriya Awasthi is South Asia Regional Coordinator
for Free the Slaves.
Her Own Words
A freed bonded laborer in India, Kaushaliya Devi worked
her way to freedom with other women in her village after joining a micro-credit
union organized by Sankalp, an organization that helps former slaves. One
of the great challenges in anti-slavery work is finding ways to help freed
slaves build a safe and secure life for themselves and their families.
The Self-Help Groups are micro-credit unions in which members join together
and save money to purchase their own land, and activists and attorneys from
Sankalp aid in maneuvering the legalities of the process. Kaushaliya Devi’s
story demonstrates the importance of economic rehabilitation after slavery.
I heard in the village that some people were making groups, and at the time
my family was in debt bondage working for the contractor. I organized the
Self-Help Group with the help of Sankalp just one year ago, and we are now
13 women. Initially we had some internal problems, but we realized that
if the group does not work smoothly then we might fall prey to debt bondage
again and be forced to work under the contractor’s terms and conditions.
Now we are working according to our wishes and the contractors do not harass
us because they are afraid that we might lodge a complaint against them
under the Bonded Labor Act.
I have been living here for 25 years now. I am a migrant, I came from Gara
Katara [in Bihar]. My husband and I have two daughters and one son. I break
stones with my husband in the quarry. He takes out the big stones to break
in the sun, and we both break them into gravel. We load the stones onto
a truck every 10 to 15 days. Only after the truck has been loaded and we
receive payment for the stones can we get food to eat. If we do not load
the truck, or it doesn’t come when we are prepared to load, we would
die of hunger. Even though we are free now from debt bondage, we do not
have any other option for work except breaking stones. All the farmland
that is here is in the hands of ‘big’ people and we just have
stones. Big people have taken all the fertile lands—what can I do?
I am leading my life like this and I am frustrated. I have spent my life
breaking stones and my kids will also spend their lives breaking stones,
we don’t have anything else to do…
My husband and I earn 1,100 rupees ($23) for one truck of stones, but we
have to pay fees to load the truck and also pay money for royalties. At
most, we load two trucks per month.
I want my kids to study and become educated. They should not live the kind
of life we have lived, but I am helpless. I don’t want my children
to sacrifice their lives doing this work. I can barely afford to allow my
daughters, seven and 12 years old, to continue studying.
Right now we are free, but we face many problems. We don’t have a
place to rest, or a place to take a bath or go to the bathroom. We do not
have land, just a small hut. I am not allowed to farm in anyone’s
field. I want more than anything for my children to get a small piece of
land and be educated and rehabilitated. I don’t want to take someone
else’s land, I want the government to provide us with land. I am ready
to go anywhere.
Devi’s situation is tough, but it is not hopeless. Free the Slaves
is working with Sankalp to gain access to government land in her area. When
sufficient funds are raised, this land will not only be made available to
freed slaves, but will be an area of environmental restoration to replant
the original forests, create watersheds, and make possible a decent life
for families like Devi’s.