Sheikh Janu, all of 12, shoots back a quick retort when asked why she is at the factory and not at school—"Khaana kaun daalega? Tum?" Janu makes Rs 60 a day and is assisted by her younger sister Mastani, whose age she refuses to reveal. The siblings put in eight hours a day and have to cough up a daily commission of Rs 20 each to the mill supervisor who has "helped" them land their jobs. Some children even work the night shift to make a little extra. Outside one of the mills, sisters Saida and Baji Bi, aged 11 and 13, collect scattered cotton which will be recycled. Saida Bi’s mother gets very agitated when she sees our camera. "Do you know how difficult it is to earn a living?" she asks. "Why don’t you take my daughters and get them married? I challenge you to give them a better life!"
There is no comfort or assurance you can offer the children or their parents. You wonder why factory owners prefer children for this job. Shafiq, a truck driver on the premises, provides us the answer. Children are more energetic, and much faster than adults, he tells us. And do the employers not fear punitive action? One labour officer, who accompanies Outlook to the mills, smiles when asked if surprise inspections happen regularly. "Of course they do," he say. "But the mill owners and managements are informed in advance. And palms are greased." It’s all very matter-of-fact, and everyone’s at peace.