FIROZABAD, India (Reuters) - In the corner of a dark room filled with the stench of kerosene, Prabhu Dayal crouches over a fire, his nimble fingers forming glass bangles in the flames.
Prabhu is only 8-years-old, but his life is already one of endless toil, making colorful, glass bangles popular among women across India.
“Sometimes I get sores on my fingers but it’s okay,” Prabhu said, without looking away from the flame for a moment.
“When the flame is blue, it’s okay. When it turns yellow, then foul gas comes out,” he explained.
“It’s not that difficult. Just hold the two ends (of the bangle) like this and join them with the fire,” he added, deftly showing his skill.
Despite a government ban on child labor, Prabhu is one of tens of thousands of children in India who work in horrific conditions in often dangerous industries to support their poor families.
Across the country, children stuff explosives into fireworks to be lit during religious festivals and extravagant wedding celebrations, or weave carpets, sew textiles and make everything from footballs to cricket bats to sulphur-tipped matchsticks.
Around the town of Firozabad, about 230 km (140 miles) southeast of New Delhi and the hub of India’s glassware industry, 50,000 child workers endure lives similar to Prabhu’s laboring away in dozens of factories, rights groups estimate.
Under India’s Child Labor Act of 1986, children under 14 are banned from working in industries deemed “hazardous” such as fireworks, matchstick-making, auto workshops or carpet weaving.
The ban was extended in October to cover those employed at roadside food stalls, homes and hotels.
But the rules are widely flouted, and prosecutions, when they happen at all, get bogged down in courts for lengthy periods.
In 1996, a government survey found that 22,000 children worked in factories around Firozabad. Charges were brought against plant owners, many of whom are still involved in legal battles.
The factories stopped employing children directly, but began outsourcing their work to “household units”, workshops like the tiny, dark room where Prabhu works eight to ten hours a day.
A restless boy with sparkling eyes, Prabhu earns about 10 rupees (22 cents) for joining around 1,200 bangles a day.
Child rights activists like Ramesh Singh Chandel of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan say hundreds, if not thousands, of these children become afflicted with lung disease from their exposure to chemicals.
Most refuse to be examined for fear of losing their only source of income.
“Once we held a free health check up camp here,” said Chandel, a human rights worker based in the area. “Not one person came. Nearly everyone here suffers from some form of asthma.”
The day begins at 3 a.m. for Prabhu, his two brothers and their father.
At 8 a.m., Prabhu goes to school but he returns to the dingy workshop at around noon and works until 5 p.m.
The finished bangles are then heaped on carts and bicycles, which are dragged back to the factories in Firozabad.
“After that we play,” Prabhu said.
Middle-aged Ramrati lives in a one-room mud hut where she cooks in an earthen oven. She has three sons, aged between 5 and 13. All of them work in the bangle industry.
A daughter, who also grew up making glass bangles, died of tuberculosis a few years ago at the age of 16
“The bangles killed her,” she said.
“She used to cough a lot and turned weak. I got her married thinking her health would improve but she died in a few months.”
“What option do they have?” asked Vishwa Vimohan Kulshreshtha, who runs a UNICEF program here to wean the children away from work.
“Where will they go? What will they do? The government has only banned child labor but it has not created any jobs”.
“Until the parents get some other work, they will continue to use their children to increase their income. It’s a question of livelihood,” he said.
Bal Krishan Gupta is the owner of Om Glassworks, one of the biggest factories in the region. Inside his sprawling residence is a cricket field, a fish pond and ducks playing on the lawns.
Gupta, who came to Firozabad in 1946, says his factories no longer make bangles, but he knows that children in the region are making them in hazardous conditions.
“But who is responsible for this? Is it not the father of the child who is making the child work?” he asked.