The market for slave labour constitutes the largest trafficking problem for the country and each year an estimated 200,000 children fall into the hands of traffickers. Many of these youngsters are sold by poverty-stricken families who are no longer able to feed themselves. The children are taken from rural impoverished areas to towns and cities, where they toil long hours as factory workers, domestic servants, agricultural labourers or beggars.
A new article in the Guardian follows the fate of children from the poor state of Bihar on the border with Nepal. Here, parents are offered as little as 1,000 rupees (£11) for their children by traffickers. The traffickers promise the children that they will earn money once they reach work in the cities, but in many cases the youngsters are paid nothing. One nine-year old boy called Azam told the Guardian’s reporter that after he arrived in Delhi, he was put to work sorting waste in a plastics factory. He thought he would be helping to earn money to support his family back in Bihar, but instead he worked from 9am to 10pm every day and was never paid anything by the factory owner. Now back with his mother, she explains that having no husband, she was desperate. Azam was the oldest of her children and with nothing for the family to eat, she didn’t know what else to do but send him away. In Bihar, more than half the population live below the official poverty line of 22 rupees (25p) per day. It is therefore a fertile recruiting ground to supply the market for Delhi’s estimated half a million child workers.
One organisation working against child labour, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), recently went to a town in Bihar, having been tipped of that a group of young children had been put on board a train headed for Delhi. Video footage on the Guardian website shows the bewildered anxious children sitting on the station platform having been taken off the train by rescuers. Most were returned to their mothers over the next few days, though some of the women who came to collect their youngsters were not happy to have them back. One unwell 35-year old mother with six children to feed on her own said simply “what is the point of [my son] studying. Better that he starts working and earns some money”.
With such desperate poverty and a lack of awareness about the true conditions faced by the children when they get to Delhi, it’s no wonder there’s a constant stream of free labour for the traffickers. According to the latest report on trafficking by the US State Department, India is making progress in its efforts to prevent trafficking. But until the country introduces comprehensive anti-trafficking laws and the justice system convicts those who take part in or are complicit in trafficking activities, train loads of vulnerable children will continue to head for the cities.