Haldiram's restaurant, in New Delhi, India, is noisy and crowded. At the larger tables, stylish young parents, well-dressed grandparents and happy, excited children are enjoying dinner. At smaller tables nearby sit the ayahs, the children's nannies. These girls are barely older than the kids they care for, and look heartbreakingly out of place. Each girl makes less money in a month than her employers will spend on dinner that night. None of the girls will go to school. They will spend their lives eating leftovers and wearing hand-me-downs.
In India, employment of children as maids and servants is a way of life. It is also illegal. Girls and boys perform a variety of household chores, from cooking and washing to child care. They also work at roadside eateries and in hotels and restaurants.
In October 2006, the Indian government extended a law that prohibits children under 14 from working in hazardous professions to include a ban on jobs in hotels, restaurants and private homes. Despite the legal change, UNICEF, in a report issued last week, said that 12% of India's children between ages 5 and 14 are in the labor force. But the real figure may be even higherosomewhere between 75 and 90 million kids.
"Everyone knows factories use children," says Puja Sahu, the owner of a boutique in New Delhi. "It's an open secret." Last October, the Gap clothing chain was forced to withdraw a line of embroidered blouses because of reports that the garments were stitched by kids.
The Root of the Problem
When the government first suggested a ban on child labor in homes, hotels and restaurants, employers and even some children's rights activists pointed out that many children work in order to survive. If they didn't work, who would feed them? Where were the schools that would offer the kids a brighter future?
The ban was a "positive step forward," says Farida Lambay, the founder of Pratham, a children's rights group.
Others are less optimistic. "The entire thing has been a disaster," says Umesh Kumar Gupta of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a group that has been at the head of the anti-child-labor movement. He points out that children who have been rescued since the ban went into effect often have had to find employment elsewhere, because the poverty at the root of the problem has not been addressed. Ingrid Srinath, another activist, agrees. "Sometimes, the children's families don't want them back," she says. "They want the children to continue working, because they need the money."
A Huge Reserve of Talent
For many, India is a land of opportunity. Salaries are rising, and the middle class is thriving. The country has 36 billionaires. Two years ago, the Internet-technology industry alone brought in $36 billion. The world's biggest democracy is poised to become an economic superpower.
One of India's greatest resources is its young populationo35% of its 1.1 billion people are under the age of 15. But, with millions of children not going to school and not learning any skills, this huge reserve of potential talent could spell trouble, not prosperity. Harjot Kaur, director at the Ministry of Labor and Employment, insists that the government is working to improve the situation. She points to plans to conduct a survey to determine the number of working children and to expand projects aimed at eventually eliminating child labor.
The leaders of businesses and industry, meanwhile, have begun to realize that India's future lies with its youth, and in educating the poor. Infosys, a giant technology company, has set up 10,000 libraries in rural areas across the country. Wipro, another tech firm, is adopting 7,500 schools.
The ayahs in Haldiram's restaurant can hope only for table scraps. But a combination of political action and business investment could bring them, and all of India's children, a rich feast of possibilities.