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Beautifully Made, Slave Made

13 Aug 2008, by elance programmer in Uncategorized

Yesterday my friend Benjamin and I went to Varanasi, a well-known city in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is famous for the Ganges River, revered as holy by Hindus, and there are over 50 temples along the river edge. Two of them are “burning ghats” where specially trained Hindus prepare dead bodies for proper burning, and then spread the deceased’s ashes into the Ganges.

 After the overnight train ride from Kolkata, we found our way through the maze of small dirt streets to our guest house on the Ganges. The Sita Guest House, a very nice place with friendly staff and wonderful view, was a relief from the sweltering heat. The receptionist was kind enough to show us around the area, and led us on a walking tour of the ghats (temples). After that, he took us to a silk loom, since Varanasi is also famous for its silk saris/scarves. This is where my carefree tour turned into a very bitter experience.

 

varanasi silk loomAs the shop manager showed us around his “factory,” which included several buildings, we saw a few weaving looms and then the finishing rooms. Most of the men working on the looms were in their twenties and thirties, but one young boy could not have been older than fourteen. And then we saw the finishing room, where extremely young boys (roughly eight or nine) were hand stitching the beads and sequins onto the edges of the saris. I was so upset, and just kept saying to Benjamin, “They’re so young! This is blatant child labor!” Ben, a little more tactful than me, waited until we were sitting in the manager’s showroom to ask, “So where do you find your workers?” Mostly they come from the Muslim community, as the manager explained. Then Ben followed up, “Do you have a minimum age requirement?” Despite the Indian labor law that sets the minimum age of employment at fourteen, this manager told us that his company employs children as young as twelve. I was gritting my teeth, but didn’t want to alert him to my feelings. Instead we thanked him for showing us around, I took his business card so I had his location and phone number, and took a photograph of one of the boys working on the loom.

 

Afterwards, I called our local NGO partner, MSEMVS, to tell the Director about my experience. He said that he’d take the information, but unfortunately the loom owners and managers are getting very clever. Apparently, since there have been raids in recent years, they now keep fake school certificates and report cards on hand. That way, when the police and NGOs come to rescue any underaged children, the owners explain that the children are enrolled in school but just there for the day because there’s a school holiday. All nonsense of course, as the physical abuse marks and signs of malnutrition will attest. But they also pay the local men to pose as the children’s fathers, thwarting any attempts at rescue. Luckily, there are some very dedicated NGOs like MSEMVS and Rugmark Foundation that persist despite these obstacles.

 

ganges viewOther than that awful site, Varanasi is a beautiful city and I highly recommend it to any traveler in India. There are gorgeous temples, delicious food joints, beautiful saris (and slave made saris), and comfortable guest houses.

  

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