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MADRAS, India — There is Dickensian distress in India, where child labor persists despite a law and a court order. Fifteen million children below 14 continue to work in the most horrific of conditions in blatant violation of the Indian Supreme Court ruling, which had called for the enforcement of the Child Labor Act, passed a decade earlier.

Five years after the court decree comes a disturbing report from London-based Human Rights Watch. Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, said recently in the British capital: “The Indian government claims there are no bonded kids in the country. But, in fact, they are everywhere. They are so easy to find.”

Human Rights Watch first investigated child labor in India in 1996, and the organization’s report led to the Supreme Court ruling: Rehabilitate boys and girls bonded to backbreaking work. India’s National Human Rights Commission pressured many local governments to adhere to this legal requirement, and in some cases the plight of the young worker improved.

This also happened because of global resistance to buying goods from India made with the help of children. The two industries that came under strict scrutiny from the world trade community were carpet weaving and cheap-cigarette manufacturing. At one point, India lost a precious amount of foreign exchange when many countries refused to buy its exquisite carpets woven with the help of tiny, dexterous fingers.

Although boys and girls were largely freed from these two industries, it is suspected that many of them were simply relocated to other, businesses less in focus, such as silk weaving.

The Human Rights Watch report gives a moving picture of what goes on in India’s silk industry, which produces mostly saris: “Often a child as young as five is bonded, and it has to work 12 or more hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. Children making silk thread (used to make garments) dip their hands in boiling water, which burns and blisters them. . . . They breathe smoke and fumes from machinery, handle dead silk worms that cause ugly infections, and guide twisting threads that cut their fingers. . . . As they assist weavers, they sit cramped besides the looms in damp, dim rooms.”

Obviously, there is no such facility as a school or education for them. Nor do they enjoy the pleasures of outdoor life or games. An existence of utter depravation — often compared to what Charles Dickens saw, experienced and wrote about in his classic novels — results in the total impoverishment of the child, which not only grows up into an illiterate adult, but also a crippled individual, disabled by the kind of job he or she has been forced to do.

The tragedy is such that the government’s ambitious scheme to rehabilitate boys and girls under the age of 14 appears to have not really taken off. One reason is the unhelpful attitude of big companies, which are partners in this crime. These companies cut costs by hiring child workers, who are underpaid and underrepresented. These millions lead practically voiceless lives.

If the erring business houses need to be tamed and punished, the government must address the root of this problem. In a nation of a billion-plus people, where 200 million still go to bed hungry every single day, poverty is a demon that promotes and encourages child labor.

It is only recently that the right to education has been made fundamental. If this is implemented in letter and spirit, there is a good chance that many boys and especially girls will attend school.

But the right to education will be a meaningless exercise if the right to work is not guaranteed or if adult wages are not improved — measures that will stop parents from pushing their sons and daughters into dingy, torturous workplaces in the hope of earning the family a decent income.

Admittedly, these solutions are not easy. They involve huge capital expenses and, above all, a greater resolve to shift and change priorities. With the Kashmir question still burning — a state claimed by two Asian nuclear powers as their own — New Delhi is obsessed with building its arms arsenal, as is Islamabad, thus leaving either nation with little money to make education and health a top priority.

Of equal concern has been the government’s ineptitude in raising the level of minimum wages to make it compatible with the cost of living index. Most of the 15 million child laborers come from very poor families, and the pittance that these youngsters contribute to the household kitty helps the family to survive, however precariously it may be.

Ultimately, businessmen and corporate houses must pledge to eliminate this form of labor. Therein lies the real key to this complicated lock.

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