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"Children covered in dust and filth crashing hammers into stones"

September 24th, 2010
12:31 AM ET

Editor’s Note: Harvard human trafficking fellow Siddharth Kara is undertaking a research trip around South Asia, looking at issues of forced labor, trafficking and child bondage. He will be getting access to the heart of the problem, and telling CNN.com readers what he has discovered every week over the next ten weeks.

During my research in South Asia this summer, I spent several days documenting labour abuses in New Delhi for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, particularly relating to child labour.

In a few short days, I documented thirty-two reliable cases of human trafficking for forced labour and fourteen cases of child labour throughout the city. To do so, I spent several hours speaking with and observing groups of men, women, and children working in construction until I felt the burden of exploitation had been met. Had I spent more time, I have no doubt that I would have documented many more cases than this.

Throughout Delhi, entire families had been trafficked from across north India into the capital to build the stadiums, metro extensions, and road enhancements required to host the Games.

Images of tiny children covered in dust and filth crashing hammers into stones or carting rubble from one side of the road to another right in front of the magnificent Indira Gandhi stadium were among the most difficult for me to observe.

Listening to numerous tales of deception and exploitation were not easy, though they did enlighten me as to how exactly this exploitation had come to pass.

Gurahu, his wife, his three children, his brother, his brother’s wife, and their two children were promised work in construction in Delhi at minimum wages of approximately $4.50 per day, and about half this amount for the children. Illiterate, Gurahu signed a contract with his thumbprint. His family traveled from Bihar, India, and two months later, they say they have only been paid for two weeks of work at approximately $2.20 per day. The contractor/trafficker who recruited them to Delhi on behalf of the construction company evidently keeps the rest. A similar formula was repeated in all cases I documented.

Gurahu’s children, ages five to nine, work with him seven days a week from eight am to seven pm. Scores of other workers toil along side them. They sleep in makeshift plastic tents in the dirt. The contractor arranges two meager meals a day of rice and daal, flies swarming as they eat. There is no running water. They use the toilet behind trees, or in the middle of the construction sites (as was noted in the Athlete’s Village just a few days ago). They work in oppressive heat and humidity. They continue to work because they are promised they will eventually be paid.

“We are dying here,” Gurahu told me. “I wish I had never left Bihar.”

The atrocious working conditions have been perilous for workers and local citizens alike. No one really knows how many injuries and deaths have occurred due to the unsafe conditions, but it is generally regarded to be several times more than any other city’s preparations for a major international sporting event.

Men, women, and children slog in filth and squalor in broad daylight.

Were you to drive through the streets of Delhi even today, you would see men, women, and their children toiling around the clock to try to salvage an event that is fast becoming a national shame.

Time will tell what lessons are learned from these Games, and whether a nation can find a way to protect all its citizens, especially its children – – to educate them and give them space to grow and play as children should.

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