Varanasi: A boy, about eight years old, sitting on a raised threshold in Varanasi’s Bajardiha, hands out tea to an old man in a small plastic cup. He has no smile on his face. The two are not friends.
In exchange for the tea, the old man takes out a Rs 5 coin from his shirt and gives it to him. The boy’s face lights up. He keeps it in the safe next to jars of toffees, biscuits and packets of chips.
Once the old man is gone, the boy – let’s call him M – leans out of the small shop, looking left and right. More customers will mean more Rs 5 coins for the safe.
Behind him, three handloom machines are kept, untouched for many months, with dust settled on them. In better times, Varanasi’s Bajardiha used to be a big saree mandi. Traders from all over the world would go there to buy the finest silk sarees. Even though the weavers did not always get adequate money for their products – they still managed to lead a decent life with enough money to buy them groceries at the beginning of every month.
The lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus, however, has meant disaster for the community of weavers. Since the lockdown was announced, the weaving industry suffered huge losses as their products suddenly lost demand.
In the absence of an income, many families set up small shops. The windows and doors of their houses became shopfronts. While the men of the families go out in search of daily wage work, the shops are handled by the children who are often younger than 14 years of age.
Khurshida Bano, M’s paternal aunt says, “We don’t have [weaving] work. There is no money. Modi ji went from selling tea to becoming a minister, but our kids are still selling tea for survival.”
Hidayatullah, his father, a 35-year-old man, has been working as a weaver for over 20 years now. Before the lockdown, he used to weave at least one saree a week, and get as much as Rs. 2,500 for it. Since the lockdown was announced, his work stopped – but he still had a family of 10 to take care of. He says, “There are many kids who are selling tea, samosa and papad outside.”
N, a Class 4 student at a nearby school, sells tea and other grocery items during the day. Nasim, Hidayatullah’s brother and N’s uncle, says, “I am telling you what I have seen. Kids have started selling things like tea and pakoras [fritters] in the area to support their families. But nobody even buys anything from them…”
Every other house in Bajardiha has a similar story. On entering Bajardiha one is introduced to a completely different Varanasi than the one portrayed as a picture of growth by virtue of being Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. Filled with weavers who weave the world famous Banarasi silk sarees, it is a matter of great irony that the residents’ living conditions are quite the opposite of the shiny sarees that they produce.
Bajardiha is a mix of pitch and dirt roads, with overflowing drains on either sides of both. Most children seen running on the roads are half clothed. Goats and hens have a free run.
In another lane nearby, sits 10-year-old Z who sells tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other vegetables.
Mohammad Shakeel, a middle-aged weaver, says his weaving was the only way his family of seven – including his wife and five kids – survived. His eldest is his 15-year-old daughter, Gulfishan, and Z is his third, and first male child. He studies in Class 6 in a nearby madrasa and has been at home since the institutions shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Shakeel recalls, “I have been doing this work [weaving sarees] since I dropped out of school in Class 10. It is our tradition, after all.”
He was taught weaving by his father after he had just dropped out of school. He has never regretted leaving school and learning his trade – since it was something he loved to do – until recently.
He says, “Earlier, we used to manage somehow, enough to fill our bellies. For each saree, we used to get Rs 300-500 on an average. Since the lockdown, I have not had any work, nor money.” Since the lockdown was announced four months ago, Shakeel has only weaved a total of six sarees. These did not earn him enough money to take care of the home. “Before the lockdown, I used to weave at least 30-40 sarees a month. Even the six sarees I weaved during the lockdown were from previous orders…”
Shakeel has taken over Rs 20,000 in loan from friends and relatives. After he had exhausted all contacts, he felt the need, for the first time in his life, to set up a shop for things other than Banarasi sarees. “Our skill is of no use anymore. What development has happened here? All of us weaver brothers have used up all their savings,” he says.
Talking about his son who is sitting at the shop, he says, “It is time for games and studies for him. But seeing that his studies are on hold, we thought we’ll put him to work.”
When asked if he knows that this is illegal, he says, “It’s better for him to be at home and sit at the shop instead of going out, you know how the environment is [due to the coronavirus].”
Z, 10 years old, talks in a way that reflects wisdom beyond his age. “It’s all good, sitting and selling vegetables. At least I am getting some money for use at home.” But he is determined not to give up on studies and looks forwards to the time when madrasas reopen.
Ishrat Bano, Z’s mother points to their small kitchen, with half empty containers of rice, sugar and salt. She says, “How many days will our kids remain hungry? We had to come up with something. How many more loans could we take? We don’t want to be in a situation where we hang ourselves.”
“No kid sits at the shop for fun. All parents want to educate their kids. But we have no choice. How do we educate them? We don’t like making our kids sit here…there is no money to even recharge our phone so they can attend online classes,” she says.
Z starts his day early at about 6 am and sits at the shop until about 7 pm. On a daily basis, he manages to earn about Rs 50 from the vegetable shop.
Raushan Jameel, an elderly member of the mohalla and widely regarded as ‘head weaver’, explains, “See, the condition of weavers in Banaras [Varanasi] was never really great. But since the lockdown, it has been terrible. It’s like their backbones have been fractured badly. They don’t have food to eat.”
People from outside helped the weavers for a while, says Jameel, but then that also stopped, “because they also have limited resources.”
Describing some of the things he has recently witnessed, he says, “One day, I came out of the house and saw a really small kid, maybe 10 years old, selling paan on the streets. If you roam the streets for just two minutes, you will see many little kids selling golgappas, papad, tea and paan. Another day I saw a kid pushing a thela of mangoes with his father walking by him.”
“Now young boys from the community are working as cheap labour in nearby areas for Rs 200-300. That’s how their house expenses are managed. Their age-old tradition of weaving is getting lost somewhere, the young generation is now scared to pursue weaving as a profession after looking at the condition of their households,” he added.
Pointing to other effects of the lockdown, he says, “Weavers used to somehow manage before. They couldn’t save any money even then. Since the lockdown, we have had to ask for help from others. Now the conditions are getting worse. Children are being employed to work at shops, and adults are taking up jobs that don’t pay even the minimum wages.”
He adds, “Most work in the Banarasi saree industry was based on credit.”
This means that traders who had given orders are now returning the sarees to the weavers because they will no longer be able to sell it. This return is in the form of a sale and costs the weavers money.
Weavers are also no longer able to buy zari for the sarees on credit, as they did before. So they cannot even use this time to prepare for the future.
Vivian Isaac who has been working on child labour issues in eight Indian states since 2014, believes that the children who are working at their own shops at present are at high risk of getting exploited.
He says, “Instead of getting additional help, many families prefer to use the kids in their houses or from the neighbourhood because this comes cheap. If you ask the parents why the children are working at such an age, they will say they are just helping. But what they don’t realise is this makes the kids very vulnerable. It is as if they are on the market for sale, that too for cheap prices.”
Isaac explains that for children above the age of 14, helping in family enterprises and businesses is permissible if it does not come in the way of their education. “But for children below the age of 14, there is no concession. That clearly comes under child labour,” he says.
Sexual harassment is also a problem that arises from child labour. Isaac explains, “Suppose a girl child is sitting at the shop, and a employer sees her and thinks why not get her into my shop to work? He will promise more money to her and her parents will be lured. But there are high chances of sexual harassment in such cases. A lot of sex trafficking is a result of labour trafficking.”
“To openly allow a child to work in a public space, such as a shop or a restaurant means putting the child at a great risk of sexual harassment,” he added.
He believes that since the lockdown was announced, it has become easier for employers to lure children into their businesses for low wages.
Ghazala Qamar, a resident of Bajardiha area and a human rights activist has been working in the area for about 10 years. “Bajardiha is a heavily populated area with at least 1.5 lakh people, majority of whom are weavers. People make suits and sarees here, using powerlooms and handlooms both. They start from weaving the sarees and end with embroidering it,” she says.
Due to the lockdown, the traders have stopped coming to Bajardiha to buy sarees. “All the small weavers have taken a hit. I have seen many families eat just chutney and rice for meals. Meals are cooked once a day. Domestic violence is also increasing in the area.”
Talking about the child labour that has recently sprung up in the area, she says, “Earlier, kids would go to school. They would come back, study and play. But now since the lockdown, kids are not going to schools and have to stay home. The real problem is that adults, who are skilled in weaving and are thus ashamed to sit in the shops themselves.”
Qamar estimates that the child labour issues in the area will only increase if the administration does not extend help to these families.
The reason for Qamar’s concern, she says, is that there has been a history of child labour in the area, mostly within the community. “When sarees are weaved, “booti-kadhna” (sewing embroidery designs on sarees) is mostly done by kids. Adults don’t do it, because there is very little space in a workshop for them, only kids can sit and do it.”
The main causes of this, according to Qamar, is the cheap cost at which these children are employed. “The sarees that these kids work on are ultimately sold for as much as Rs 50,000. But the kids here are employed to work on the same sarees for as little as Rs 2,000 per month. Sometimes, kids from the neighbourhood are also hired, in case there are no kids in a weaver’s own household. If an adult does it, they will ask for full wages, but kids come cheap.”
However, in the past decade, the practice has become less common. The advent of powerlooms and the necessity of formal education reduced the practice.
According to the 2015 United Nation’s International Labour Organization report, more than 2.4 million adolescents in India work in hazardous places, constituting almost two third of the total child labour.
A brief from the ILO and UNICEF in the wake of Coronavirus recently expressed concern and predicted a rise in the number of children being pushed into labour. According to the brief, millions of children risk being pushed into child labour as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
A joint statement by the UNICEF and ILO on their official website read, “Recent years have seen significant progress in the fight against child labour. The current COVID-19 pandemic, however, can potentially reverse the positive trends observed in several countries and further aggravate the problem in regions where child labour has been more resistant to policy and programme measures.”
According to their latest statistics in 2011, there are 10.13 million child labourers between the age of 5-14 years in India, which had decreased by around 20% from the 2001 Census data. It means that for every eleven children between the ages 5-18 years old, there is one child working.
Note: Faces of underage children photographed for this article have been blurred.