Trying to Rescue India's Endangered Kids

Dhiren is 13 years old. Until two months ago, he lived on the streets of New Delhi, India, addicted to drugs, orphaned by his parents. Speaking to a reporter who is obviously foreign, he asks not for help but about something he's seen on TV.

"You are from HBO? HBO Movies? X-Men! Yes, you are actor. X-Men! With the hair!" He slashes his right hand through the air as Wolverine does. He stares for a minute, shrugs his shoulders, and walks away, joining his friends.

Today, Dhiren lives about 30 miles outside of Delhi in a school for 20 children, one part of a network that calls itself the Bounded Labor Liberation Front. It is a group dedicated to helping members of the underclass of India, the children who have become the enablers of western profits -- 10-, 12-, 14-year-old kids who spend long days making t-shirts and jeans sold for more than each one will make in a year.

"Previously, nobody knows about these childrens," Sheotaj Singh says in his stilted English. Professor Singh is the general secretary of the Bounded Labor Liberation Front, which he helped create 30 years ago. Now he helps run the Belpa school, where Dhiren and 19 other young students are taught to become productive members of society.

Whether they are former sweatshop workers or children like Dhiren, found alone in the bus and railway stations of Delhi, the Bounded Labor Liberation Front rescues children usually left to a destiny of forced work or, sometimes, homelessness. There is no government infrastructure to help these people, though there are laws against child labor.

"The whole system is corrupt," Professor Singh says. "These are children doing work under the very noses of the government agencies in Delhi. ... The government pick up them and send them to the refinery or jails, and nothing more. But after that, they have to release them after some time, and again, they go through the same system" -- never fully escaping from the shadows in which they've lived for years.

The school consists of one courtyard and one building. In the dirt courtyard, to entertain the visiting journalists, the school's two teachers and one volunteer lead what look like boot camp exercises. The students line up neatly and perform jumping jacks, karate kicks, and somewhat awkward calisthenics in syncopated rhythms.

Next to the courtyard, a small fire lets the kids cook their dinners and heat up tea at sunset.

Inside the building there is a mat for each child to sleep on. There are no beds. There are two lights, but on this Sunday night, the devices that keep them running have burnt out. But in the corner, just a few feet away from where they sleep and have their classes, about 10 used computers sit unassembled. These are the keys to releasing Dhiren from a cycle of poverty and virtual slavery.

"After 2, 3, 4 months, they will have some training in computer applications, and they will go to" Indian technical schools, Singh says, "so that maybe they can be good citizens."

It is not easy. Professor Singh points to his head, describing the time when he was attacked by what he calls local "mafia" groups -- the people he says sell children into slavery. The attack broke a dozen bones in his body, and he says he expects the groups might kill him.

Child labor is profitable and widespread in India, and the middlemen who stand to lose the most will not let the status quo change quietly.

Often you can't see how widespread child labor is "because it's hidden," Save the Children says. "whether it's in people's homes or small little areas of big cities, where children are crammed into little rooms. Officially, it's about 13 million children under 14 who are working in hazardous occupations. And unofficially, it's anywhere between 60 to 80 million."

Singh tries to save just a few at a time.

"They are the future of this country," he says. "If they are becoming lawless people, then what will the future be?"

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