Does India’s new ‘Make in India’ campaign mean ‘Made by Children?’ – Los Angeles Times

Their hands fly with the speed and precision of veteran assembly-line workers, pausing only to flick sweat from their shiny-smooth foreheads.

They construct box after cardboard box, designed for sari shops in far-off cities, stacking them into multi-hued towers that loom above their small, hunched bodies.

Many of the workers are not yet teenagers, and they fill the dimly lighted corridors of the textile mills and warehouses of this industrial city in western India. Despite a law requiring every child younger than 14 to be in school full time, millions of Indian boys and girls still hold jobs, including more than 50,000 in Surat alone, according to estimates by human rights groups.

India has declared that it wants to end child labor, but advocacy groups argue that a new government proposal could actually push more youngsters into the workforce, jeopardizing their education and putting them at greater risk of exploitation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet last month approved amendments to a 3-decade-old child labor law that would make it legal to employ children younger than 14 in “family enterprises” not deemed hazardous.

Children would be barred from mining, heavy industry, manufacturing fireworks or other dangerous professions, but could participate in virtually any other sector as long as the work was outside school hours in a business run by relatives, says a government statement on the legislation.

Modi’s conservative government said it was seeking to strike “a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socioeconomic condition and social fabric in the country.”

In many poor Indian families, boys and girls assist their parents from an early age, and proponents say an outright ban on child labor could harm small farmers, shopkeepers, cooks and others who rely on young hands to help them scrape by.

The number of recognized child laborers in India has fallen sharply, according to census data, to 4.3 million in 2011 from 12.6 million in 2001, although children working in family businesses are believed to be significantly undercounted. Child rights advocates are concerned that the government proposal could roll back even those gains by carving out a loophole that would be abused by employers who already stretch the definition of the word “family.”

In Surat, a fast-growing city of 4.6 million, textile bosses routinely tell labor inspectors that the boys embroidering saris, folding garments and assembling boxes are relatives.

Government surveys, however, indicate that many child workers in Surat are migrants from poorer states. Experts say the children rarely dare contradict their bosses and authorities often lack the resources or willingness to investigate further.