How tiny fingers help India earn big export profits

IN chic New York department stores, you can buy a beautiful nine-by-12-foot handmade wool carpet from India for about $2,600. Most of these carpets are produced in villages like Tila Thi in the state of Uttar Pradesh - tiny, sand-colored clusters of huts made of mud and cow dung that seem to have sprung organically from the scorched and dusty plain. In one of the huts in Tila Thi, a carpet that could be destined for New York, Los Angeles, or London hangs half finished on a loom. The loom stands in a pit dug about four feet into the earth. In the pit, behind the carpet, is a long, backless wooden bench on which sit two adults and seven children.

The light in the hut, coming from the doorway and a single tiny window, is dim - barely adequate to illuminate the colored paper diagram that hangs on one wall. The air is damp and close and laden with choking particles of wool fluff. The only sound is the steady chop of razor-sharp, heavy iron knives cutting the ends of the woolen knots, and the thwack of heavy iron combs jamming the knots ever closer together as the carpet slowly grows. These tasks are exacting and dangerous. There is no talking.

Eight-year-old Jai Devi sits on the bench in that hut from 10 a.m. to at least 6 p.m., seven days a week, tying knots, chopping off the ends, and pressing them into the pile. It takes the nine workers several months to finish a carpet. An overseer provides yarn, checks the quality of their work, and makes sure the deadline for completing the carpet is met, which usually means working far into the night, under the light of kerosene lamps, for weeks on end. The nine workers receive about $300 among them for three months work.

India has more child workers than any country in the world - by at least tens of millions. The Indian government says there are 17 million salaried child workers (age 15 or under) in India. But a group of researchers in the south Indian city of Bangalore puts the figure at 45 million, and others say it is even higher. In addition to the carpet industry, Indian children are also illegally employed in the glass, match, fireworks, brass, lock, gem, balloon, cigarette, and power-loom industries - all of which are banned to children because of health and safety hazards.

Because work in the carpet industry is seen as a cause of tuberculosis in a large proportion of workers, it is considered one of the most hazardous. But this industry employs the largest numbers of children. They are preferred, because their small fingers work quickly and deftly. And the carpet industry is important to the Indian economy because it earns valuable foreign exchange.

Jai is a pretty child, small and thin. Though solemn and wary of strangers, she is obviously bright and observant. She earns two rupees a day - about 16 cents. The official (rarely enforced) minimum wage for such work is 11 rupees a day.

But Jai's family doesn't complain, because they are bonded laborers. Decades ago, someone in their family borrowed money from someone in their landlord's family. Since then, they have been forced, because of their indebtedness, to work for whatever he chooses to pay them. The whole family works in the carpet industry, and will probably continue to do so all their lives. Typically, their wages will never even offset the exorbitant interest their employer attaches to their loan. And being illiterate, they are unable to understand or challenge his calculations. Their income is just enough to keep them from starving.

Children are most vulnerable to the abuses of bonded labor. Often, parents simply turn over a child to their creditor and the child must work - sometimes for years - to pay off the debt.

INDIA outlawed bonded labor in 1976. But officials of the Bonded Liberation Front, an Indian group organized to help these laborers obtain their freedom, estimate that there are still at least 5 million bonded laborers, most in poverty-stricken areas like eastern Uttar Pradesh State and neighboring Bihar. Nearly all the handmade carpets India exports come from this region, and bonded labor is a major asset to the carpet industry.

In Mirzapur district, where Tila Thi is situated, 75 percent of the population - 200,000 people - is employed making carpets. Half of them are children.

Handmade carpets rank ninth in terms of export earnings for India. In 1986, carpet exports earned 2.3 billion rupees ($192 million) for India. So valuable is this foreign exchange that the government gives a generous annual subsidy to the carpet industry.

``India is able to sell carpets throughout the world, partly because our carpets are cheap,'' says Neera Burra, a New Delhi sociologist and child labor expert. ``They're cheap because we pay our labor - especially children - so little.''

But Ms. Burra points out that India is not the only country exporting handmade carpets. If the price of Indian carpets rises because of higher wages, other countries, such as Pakistan and Morocco (which, according to Burra, also use cheap child labor), would simply displace India in the marketplace. ``What is needed is an international boycott of all carpets made with child labor,'' she declares.

POVERTY is generally acknowledged to be at the root of child labor in India. For many, it is a ``necessary evil,'' a ``harsh reality'' that will take generations to eradicate. But a growing number of Indians are questioning the longstanding assumption that poverty and exploitation are inextricable facts of Indian life, as ``organic'' as the dusty villages that rise up out of the plain in Uttar Pradesh.

Ganhel Allal lives in the village of Inderpur, near Tila Thi. When he was seven years old, his father gave him to a creditor to work off a debt. At 20, Ganhel was still in bondage, making carpets. He has never been to school.

In 1985, he was contacted by the Bonded Liberation Front. In the past two years, the Front has obtained the release of several hundred bonded laborers in the Mirzapur area, despite opposition from employers and local officials.

The Front arranged for government grants for Ganhel, and today he has a carpet business of his own, with an 18-year-old employee.

But Ganhel's success story is the exception. The power of well-organized employers, the impotence of government, and the crushing weight of the status quo mean that children like Jai are likely to remain slaves to the carpet industry for a long time to come.

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