Many children are trained in zardosi designs in several city-based workshops

Squatting on the floor of a faintly lit room, his eyes are fixed on the cloth lain ahead of him, and his frail fingers work with inconceivable nimbleness. With a largely stoic expression, 10-year-old Aarif spends 14 hours each day, in weaving patterns that would barely fetch him Rs. 70 a day.

He is among hundreds of children who are losing their childhood in numerous ‘zari' (embroidery) units, in narrow corridors and claustrophobic by-lanes in the city, to earn that little to feed themselves and their families.

“I have been working here for nearly two years and get Rs. 500 a week. My family needs that money,” said Aarif, who works in a ‘zari' unit at the old city. Almost all children engaged in the activity have never been enrolled into a school. Children, as young as eight years, being trained to work on intricate zardosi designs is a household phenomenon in several city-based zari workshops. Economic necessities drive most parents, also engaged in zari work, to coerce their children into the wearisome activity, even for a pittance. Adults engaged in the work are only about Rs.1,200 a week.

On joining a unit, both children and adults, are given an advance that could range anywhere between Rs.5,000 and Rs.1,00,000, depending on the size of the unit. They can leave ‘if and when they choose to' only on repayment of the advance.

“We take the advance and join because we are in dire need of money. Adults in this kharkhana earn Rs.200 a day and have taken an advance of at least Rs.30, 000. It is impossible for us to pay that amount all at once. So we have to work here,” said 22-year-old Syed Rehan, who was absorbed by the industry at the age of seven.

Twelve-year-Ahmed, working in the same unit, has also taken an advance of Rs. 10,000 for his family and cannot think of a future beyond the workshop. He, akin to most workers in the field, is a virtual slave to his ‘seth' (or master). Workers in the units also said that besides providing cheap labour, children are chosen to work in the field as they can be retained for long periods, because they acquire no other skill throughout their childhood, expect weaving.

Health hazards

Working sometimes until four in the morning, workers, including children, complained about problems of the spine and the eye that come along with their work.

Having acquired a dubious reputation of having the highest incidents of child labour, the State also has children employed in a variety of activities, including domestic labour, making of fire crackers, bangles and incense sticks. “Since the activity is passed on to children by their families and is conducted mainly within households, cracking down on the employers is very difficult,” said Isidore Philips, Chairman, Child Welfare Committee.

When contacted, officials of the Labour Department in the old city, however, said that they were unaware of the activity and that they would look into the matter.

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