The India Post, Agra, 25 December, 2008 :Thousands of children still slog it out in tiny shoe-making units despite a ban on employing them in factories in and around a city that remains in international limelight because of the Taj Mahal. What’s more, the industry has come to be plagued by liquor addiction.
The bigger units have begun outsourcing so they are not directly involved in engaging child labour, but those bagging these contracts have no qualms about engaging children.
While the exploitation of children continues unchecked, what is causing deep concern among social workers is the rising incidence of liquor addiction among shoe unit workers.
Members of a social group, the Council for Development of Hand Made Shoe Industry, said that children are the mainstay of the families engaged in shoe-stitching. And on an average every such household has at least one member down with a serious disease such as tuberculosis or liver ailment from liquor addiction.
Netra Pal Singh, a member of the council that works for the uplift of those engaged in the trade, says if children stopped working, their families would be forced to commit suicide. "How would the aged receive medical treatment or food if the kids did not earn?" he asks.
"Poverty and deprivation have forced many school-going children to work in a neighbourhood unit. Many children work round the clock from their own homes stitching shoe uppers. These kids have to work in the most unhygienic, sub-human conditions," Singh said.
Agra has a flourishing shoe-making industry with more than two lakh people engaged in it.
Localities like Khatena, Loha Mandi, Bodla, Jagdishpura, Langre Ki Chowki and Chakki Pat have hundreds of small units operating in deplorable conditions. The bigger export-oriented units have switched over to machines and automation.
Murari Lal, a shoe manufacturer of Jagdishpura, said that child labour was a reflection of the socio-economic reality and until there was general improvement in the earning capacity of a family, law alone would not be able to end the practice.
Retired Labour Department official SN Singh said, "There is very little that government agencies can do about closing down these home units. For some families, the children make very useful contribution to family earnings."
Several government studies have highlighted how tuberculosis, respiratory diseases and liver problems are taking a heavy toll on dalit families engaged in the industry.
Worse, while the average family income shows a rising trend, there has not been a corresponding improvement in the quality of life, because a substantial part of the income goes to liquor sellers.
"This is primarily because male workers consume large quantities of liquor. Even children take to alcohol or tobacco once they start working," said Raju Bauda of Vision 2020 Club, a small group of shoemakers that also works towards improving the lot of the workers in the shoe industry.
Naresh Kumar, owner of a unit in the Garhi Bhadauria neighbourhood, said every evening people lying drunk along the roads is a common sight. "And if the male adults of the family fall prey to diseases the burden passes on to children who should have been in schools."
Most Dalit areas in Agra have so-called medicine shops selling intoxicating cough mixtures or spirits in various forms. "Racketeers have been playing with the lives of vulnerable workers, but the government agencies hardly bother to curb them," alleged human rights activist Naresh Paras of Amnesty International.