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A Tough Buy: Child-Woven Carpets

US begins import ban this month on goods made by children. In India, such efforts fail.

Chandrama looks at the half-finished carpet and then puts a taut and sinewed hand next to his knee.

"I was this high when I started weaving and, so were my children," he says.

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"It will be the same for their children also."

Chandrama is landless, illiterate, and hungry. His two daughters Devi, 11, and Lakshmi, 16, have never been to school.

Together they earn about 60 to 70 cents for a full day's work, enough for a meal of watery lentils and unleavened bread, or chapattis, but not much else.

In another two months, the carpet that Chandrama's family is weaving will be sold with a tag certifying that it was made without using child labor.

Despite a US law passed this month banning imports of goods made by child workers, there is still no way to guarantee that the rugs coming from India are child-labor free.

In the carpet-making belt of Uttar Pradesh, there are more than 200,000 looms - most of them dug into the floors of mud huts - well hidden from the prying eyes of investigators and the outside world.

"Child labor is considered part and parcel of the social milieu in the villages around here," admits V.R. Sharma, managing director of Obeetee, one of India's largest carpet manufacturers. "There is only one industry here, and that is making carpets."

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Although there are children working in far more hazardous occupations in mines, brick kilns, and brothels, the problem of child labor in the carpet industry receives the most attention because it earns millions of dollars in export earnings.

According to the United Nations Development Program, India has the highest number of child laborers in the world, with more than 97 million children engaged in some kind of work.

India has no shortage of labor laws and provisions in the Constitution banning the employment of children, but the laws are widely flouted. Carpet weaving is one area where child labor is still allowed as long as it takes place at home and not on outside looms for wages.

But as Chandarma's experience indicates, it is difficult to draw the line at what constitutes exploitative labor.

Chandrama, like most inhabitants of Birpur village, is a potter by caste, but with no demand for pots and no land to farm, most villagers have started making carpets.

Surendra Mahindro, the managing director of E. Hill and Co., which exports the rugs made in Birpur, denies any child labor is involved in their manufacture. His company is one of an increasing number of manufacturers using the Kaleen label, which was launched by the Indian government in 1995 to counter criticism of the carpet industry by antichild labor activists.

Under the Kaleen system and the UNICEF-sponsored Rugmark label, inspectors carry out spot checks and levy fines for those violating labor practices. The money raised is plowed back into schools and rehabilitation programs for children.

Both schemes have their critics who say the system is flawed, open to corruption, and does little but soothe the consciences of buyers in the West.

Placing a blanket ban on the import of Indian products made by children is another measure often cited as solving the child labor problem.

But according to Swami Agnivesh, chairman of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, such a move would achieve little, as the worst offenders are nonexport industries such as match making, brick production, and stone quarrying.

"It would be highly unproductive," says Agnivesh. "Countries should put pressure on India to ensure the right of the child to education is implemented in letter and in spirit."

Schooling is usually cited as the panacea for child-labor problem, and there are few people who disagree that India's education system is in a state of shambles.

On average, Indian children spend just two years in school. Getting the children into school and providing them with skills like reading and writing will keep them away from the looms, out of the sweatshops, and off the streets, argue many social workers like Shamsad Khan.

"If education is made relevant and if it is of high quality, parents would be prepared to send their children to school, no matter how poor they are," says Khan.

BUT in the villages it is often a different story. "Sending them to school is not an option for us. If our children can't work, our families will starve. Give us land, give us security, then maybe they can go to school," is the common refrain in places like Birpur.

Ronnie Patel of Zeba Rugs and Dhurries in Mirzapur agrees that simply building more schools and sending more teachers will not solve the child-labor problem.

"Compulsory education is a nice comfortable Western concept, but it means very little around here," says Mr. Patel.

"Who is going to provide that education and who is going to ensure that the children go to school?" he asks. "What is wrong with artisanship anyway and having children learning useful and productive skills at home?"

As debate over child labor rages in carpet showrooms of Mirzapur, the offices of nongovernmental organizations in Delhi, and the conference halls of Europe, Chandrama and his fellow villagers still await the charity that every one is promising but no one seems able to deliver.

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