Behind the bright silk

Print edition : February 28, 2003

Thousands of children slog it out in the silk-weaving industry in Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai districts of Tamil Nadu, trapped in bondage imposed by the debts of their parents who are impoverished by a crisis-ridden industry.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR in Kancheepuram Photographs: S. Thanthoni

A child engaged in silk sari production, in Kancheepuram.-

"The President of India has urged children to dream great things, but where is the time for children like me to sleep, leave alone dream?"

- Kannan, 13.

KANNAN has been bonded for five years to a master weaver in Kancheepuram, a town 80 km south-west of Chennai known for its temples and its rich silk fabrics, mainly saris. He works from dawn to dusk from a pit, and may continue to do so "throughout life", unless a loan of Rs.2,500 that his parents took from the "master" is repaid in full. Kannan is just one among over 50,000 children between the ages of five and 13 who are bonded to the silk weavers of Kancheepuram and Tiruvannamalai districts.

The Kancheepuram silk industry, with its 500-year-old tradition, is known for producing heavyweight stiff silk saris. The saris are woven with three ply, high denier threads using thick zari for supplementary warp and weft patterns that consist of unique and intricate designs. Over 75 per cent of such silk saris that are produced in Tamil Nadu are woven in Kancheepuram, where over 80 per cent of the people are involved either in its production or sale. Estimates of the number of looms in the town vary from 50,000 to one lakh, most of them located in individual households, each employing at least one adult and one child.

Silk weaving in Kancheepuram started with the migration to the town of weavers from Gujarat's Saurashtra region. The native Mudaliars and Chettiars picked up the thread. Later, with demand for silk rising within and outside the country and the dwindling returns from agriculture, other communities such as Gounders and Naickers took up weaving. While the weavers' children were drawn to the craft naturally, people from other communities sent their children to master weavers so that they could learn a skill. With the boom in the silk industry in the 1980s, there was no looking back. From a turnover of a few crores of rupees about 50 years ago, today the industry generates business worth several hundreds of crores.

The industry suffered a setback about 10 years ago when the government encouraged powerlooms. These units, concentrated in the Salem, Arani and Dharmavaram regions of Tamil Nadu, began copying the distinct designs of Kancheepuram and selling their wares at less than a fourth of the cost of the "pure Kancheepuram silk". This led to large-scale unemployment and underemployment among the weavers of Kancheepuram. Some of them "pledged" their children with master weavers in order to redeem their debt.

For the manufacturers (big producers who are also involved in the sales) and the master weavers (who usually own three to 10 looms and get weaving contracts from manufacturers), the pliant children constituted a cheaper source of labour. Also, the parents, unable to find employment for themselves, were keen that their children work with master weavers.

A Kancheepuram silk sari, complete with intricate zari work.-

Over time, with the enactment of laws aimed at stopping the employment of children, the production structure itself was changed. The manufacturers and master weavers began farming out the work to families - for the children this only meant that they moved to a different work spot.

Most child workers are no more than slaves. A normal workday is 12 hours long, but during the peak season it stretches to 16 hours. While many work seven days a week round the year, some get a day off every two weeks. And the really lucky ones get a short break during the Pongal festival in January.

Their average monthly income ranges from Rs.80 to Rs.250. This, after deductions towards repayment of loans that were taken by their parents, often to meet emergency medical expenditure, to get a daughter married, or to feed the family. The outstandings remain uncleared despite the monthly repayment and the bondage is carried over generations.

In almost all the cases, if a child's labour and wages are reckoned properly, and the interest is calculated in a fair manner, the loan amount would be cleared in a matter of months. For example, 10-year-old J. Samundeeswari of Pillaiyarpalayam has been working with a master weaver in Kancheepuram for the past four years to repay a loan of Rs.1,500 that her parents had taken . She is paid Rs.140 a month; assuming that an equal amount is held back by the master weaver towards interest and loan, the loan would have been settled long ago. But she will probably have to work through her lifetime, crouched in a room without ventilation or basic amenities such as a toilet or provision for drinking water.

Besides zari weaving (pattu izhaithal), making small designs (vattu poduthal), shuttling the silk thread from one end to the other end of the sari (pattu wanguthal), rotating the wheel to single out the yarn (rattinam sutruthal) and preparing the loom for weaving, the bonded children do the master weavers' household work such as sweeping and mopping the floor, washing clothes and cleaning utensils.

The children suffer from innumerable health problems ranging from simple injuries to spinal disorders and eye problems. If a child is subjected to verbal abuse alone, he or she could be said to have got off easily. Beating and other methods of punishment are common. Even death is not unknown - N. Jeevanandham and R. Thamizharasan, both aged 14, are said to have died under mysterious circumstances while at work.

Several pieces of legislation, including the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986; the Child (Pledging of Labour) Act, 1933; the Tamil Nadu Handloom Workers (Condition of Employment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1981; and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, prohibit the employing of children and their bondage. But these laws are circumvented by decentralising the production structure and making it home centric.

Master weavers prefer to be assisted by children. The `advantages' are many, according to P. Ramesh Babu, a researcher from the National Labour Institute. Besides being paid low wages, children can be monitored and exploited easily. Also, children tend to remain with the master weavers for longer periods than adults, he says. The reasons being trotted out to justify the employment of children are that "they learn a skill" and that "their fingers are nimble enough to make small, intricate designs faster than adults". Some parents, particularly from communities that are traditionally not weavers, believe that their children will learn a skill if they are sent to a "task master" at a tender age. But studies have proved that these beliefs are wrong.

While the extensive use of child labour is obvious in Kancheepuram, the big manufacturers deny its existence. According to Silk and Lace Cloth Manufacturing Association joint secretary S. Karunakaran, at present it makes no sense to hire children because production has become faster with the switch to jacquard machines; there has been a shift in the sari design preference, from contrasting patterns to plain ones; and demand has been falling, leading to recession, for the past five to 10 years. "Why should manufacturers give a loan to retain children when there is huge supply?" he asks. However, he quickly adds: "Children are hired in some places. We give work orders to the weavers and we are not responsible if they hire children. Even where children are hired, they are taken care of well with three breaks a day, a holiday every other week apart from during festivals and so on." Further, he says: "Skill development is good during a tender age. After two years of apprenticeship they will be equipped to set up their own looms." He concludes: "Our association is against child labour."

While the extensive use of child labour is obvious in Kancheepuram, the big manufacturers deny its existence.-

THAT the Kancheepuram silk weaving industry has a large number of bonded child-workers was highlighted at a public hearing that was organised on January 22 by the Campaign Against Child Labour (Tamil Nadu) and the Social Action Movement (Kancheepuram). At the hearing, 32 bonded children and the parents of the two boys who are said to have died under mysterious circumstances at the workplace, deposed before an eight-member jury.

The exercise provided evidence of large-scale exploitation of child labour. The industry, which is controlled by a handful of big owners, is highly profitable largely because of the exploitation of the poor weavers' families. If the manufacturer sells a sari for, say, Rs.15,000, the weaver's family (usually comprising two adults and two children) which worked for 20 days on the loom gets Rs.1,500. If the same sari is contracted out to a master weaver who owns a loom but employs two adults and two children to work on it, the adults would get Rs.400 each and the children Rs.100 each (much below the statutory minimum levels). Thus, the master weaver pays Rs.1,000 as wages to weave a sari and gets Rs.500. The level of exploitation increases progressively as the production process gets decentralised.

Every child who deposed at the public hearing said that he or she toiled 12-13 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, working year after year in dark dingy rooms. They have no time to "play". A 20-minute lunch break (the children bring food from home) is all they get. They are paid Rs.100 to Rs.200 a month. Every child spoke of corporal punishment at work. Ten-year-old A. Ponmudi has been working for the past five years for a master weaver in Kancheepuram after his father took a loan of Rs.3,000 "on her name". "I am beaten every day by my owner and his son. When I return home, my father beats me up. My head has a lot of knuckle-marks," she said. "Is there no escape for me?" she asked.

The working conditions are appalling. As 13-year-old M. Haridoss described: " Four children work with me with my master weaver. We work for over 12 hours every day on two looms in a room, which has no light or ventilation. There is no toilet or drinking water. By the time I finish the work, I feel very tired and sick. But I have no choice. My father has borrowed Rs.2,500."

Ten-year-old A. Lakshmi said she was beaten by her master every day. "I want to go to school. But I cannot, as my father has borrowed Rs.1,500 and cannot repay it. I can get released from this master only if my father borrows from another master to pay off this loan. I am not sure the other master will be better. I have no choice but to continue with this torture," she said.

District Collector K. Rajaraman described the hearing as a one-sided affair as, according to him, it had ignored the schemes that were being implemented by the district administration.

A RECENT joint survey done by the Human Rights Foundation (Chennai), the Social Action Movement (Kancheepuram) and the Centre for Child Rights and Development (Chennai) on the status of child labour in the silk weaving industry in Kancheepuram confirms the existence of a large number of children in bondage. The survey, which was done among 235 child workers and 222 child labour families, shows that children between the ages of five and 14 are in bondage, that 71 per cent of the child workers are between 13 and 14 years of age and 22 per cent between 11 and 12 years of age; and that while 18 per cent have never been to school, 65 per cent dropped out before completing primary education.

Nearly 44 per cent of the children had worked for two to four years and 24 per cent, between four and seven years. While 72 per cent of the children work 12 hours a day, nine per cent work over 12 hours. During the peak seasons - November-January, May-June, and September - most children work 16 hours every day.

Nearly 85 per cent of the families have taken loans from the employers against the children. While a fifth of the families have taken loans of less than Rs.2,000, nearly two-fifth of the families have taken loans of Rs.2,500 to Rs.4,500. Over a tenth of the bonded children receive monthly wages of less than Rs.100; 17 per cent get between Rs.100 and Rs.150; and a fourth receive between Rs.160 and Rs.200.

The study has identified over 185 employers who employed 212 children from the sample. Another 515 children were identified as working for the same employers. While 85 children said that they had no time to rest, no access to toilets or drinking water, 130 said that they got no lunch break; and that the workplace had no proper lighting or ventilation.

The London-based Human Rights Watch recently came out with a report "Bonded Child Labour in India's Silk Industry", documenting dozens of cases of children between the ages of five and 13. According to the report, they slog over 12 hours every day. Says Human Rights Watch children's rights division counsel Zama Coursen-Neff: "Bonded children are everywhere. They are easy to find." He asks: "Why then does the government not deal with the problem with an iron hand despite the plethora of laws which can easily be used to put an end to the heinous practice?"

In Kancheepuram, the district administration has opened 30 night schools - that function between 7.30 p.m. and 9.30 p.m. - for the working children. According to E.P. Annalarasu, project officer, Nilavoli Palli (`school under moonlight'), there are about 700 child workers (those not in school) in Kancheepuram.

However, Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi, a jury member at the public hearing, says that the night schools, touted as a major achievement in dealing with the issues of children in bondage, constitutes a callous response to the problem. After working for over 12 hours every day, how can the children be expected to attend these schools? Strict implementation of compulsory primary education is the only way to deal with the issue effectively, she says.

Says Annalarasu: "There are about 2,500 students (all weavers) in the 30 night schools. But most of them are adults. The attendance fluctuates, depending on whether it is the busy or the lean weaving season." Very few girls come here. Says 13-year-old S. Jayapal, who has been attending a night school for a few months: "I <147,4,0>go to school as I am very interested in studies. But I am terribly tired when I go to school and am not able to grasp anything that is taught. I would be very happy if I can be sent to a regular school. But how can I even dream of going to a regular school when my father owes my master Rs.7,000?"

According to Annalarasu, the government introduced some schemes for the "child workers" in Kancheepuram after it conducted a comprehensive survey in 1997 of all the 176 streets in the district where silk weaving is done. These schemes include the night schools; the Alternative Employment Scheme, under which 200 women self-help groups have been set up and the women are trained to acquire skills; and the Awareness Generation Scheme funded by the United Nations Childrens Fund, under which the public are educated on the evils of child labour. Employees from various government departments are trained to identify child labourers.

The very existence of such project-based, compartmentalised, ameliorative schemes goes to show that the government is unable to enforce the laws against child labour and bondage; so far only two cases have been filed against manufacturers for employing child labour.

According to Annalarasu it will take some time for the administration's efforts to work because poverty, which is the root cause of the problem would not be solved in the short term.

POVERTY contributes to bonded labour, but it is not the only cause. The major reasons for bonded labour are the lack of access to credit, the absence of concerted social welfare schemes; inaccessible, low quality and discriminatory schools; non-implementation of minimum wages for adults; adult unemployment; and historical and economic relationships based on the hierarchy of caste and other discriminating factors. Monthly adult wages are so low - Rs.500 to Rs.600 - that workers are forced to keep borrowing from their employers, who ensure that the loans are never off the books, even though the children's labour has paid them many times over. Bonded labour is thus both a cause and a consequence of poverty.

J. Samundeeswari, who has been working since the age of six, deposes before the jury at the public hearing. The jury members (from left) R. Rathinaswamy, former member, State Human Rights Commission, Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi, Chairperson, State Commission for Women, V.R. Lakshminarayanan, former Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, and Sivagami, Director, Government Data Centre.-

Says T.Raj, project officer, Social Action Movement (SAM), which is a non-governmental organisation that has been working to eradicate bonded child labour in Kancheepuram for the past six years: "Identifying and redeeming bonded children is not enough. Most important is to rehabilitate them."

SAM has redeemed 208 children from bondage and put them in one of the 20 full-time bridge schools that it runs, before integrating them into regular schools. It also provides children with vocational training in activities such as screen printing and monitors them regularly to make sure that they do not go back to weaving. "It is a very difficult task to keep children away from weaving," says Raj, "but we have been successful thus far." SAM is also trying to equip adults from the families of the redeemed bonded children with skills necessary for alternative employment opportunities such as computer training. SAM has met with some success, but there is still a long way to go.

The government's role is crucial in eradicating child bondage. According to advocate Sudha Ramalingam, National Council member of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and a jury member at the public hearing, if all the Acts prohibiting child bondage are implemented earnestly there would be no child labour, leave alone bonded labour. She suggests that the offence of hiring children against loan should be made cognisant and non-bailable; the minimum wages for adults should be implemented strictly and the government should stop providing subsidy and concessions to the silk industry unless it complies with the relevant laws for eradicating bonded child labour.

Ossie Fernandez, director, Human Rights Foundation said: "There is no reason why this heinous practice cannot be eradicated. It can be done, if only there was political will." Only then, can the enslaved children, who know not of any other world than what they see from the pits they are thrown into everyday, dream of bigger things as advised by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

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