How industry bodies are using the NCPCR and UNICEF to whitewash accusations of child labour

India exported granite products worth $6.75 million in 2018, with Europe and North America accounting for about a fifth of the exports. Courtesy Benjamin Pütter

AT THE TWENTIETH EDITION of Stone+Tec, an international trade fair for the natural-stone industry, held at the German city of Nürnberg in June 2018, attendees received a curious invitation. A release bearing the logos of the Indian government and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights invited them to a press conference to highlight the “Non Prevalence of Child Labour in the Indian Granite Industry in India (Mines and Processing Units).”

At the press conference, held on 13 June, immediately after the press meet opening the festival, Sugandh Rajaram, the Indian consul general in Munich at the time, announced that the NCPCR and UNICEF had found, through a fact-finding mission, that there was “no scope” for child labour in India’s granite quarries, since “all processes in the granite industry are completely mechanized.” European importers and their customers, therefore, could continue to buy slabs, gravestones and kitchenware made from Indian granite without the guilt of enabling child labour. According to data compiled by the International Trade Centre, India exported granite products worth $6.75 million in 2018, with Europe and North America accounting for about a fifth of the exports.

Rajaram was joined at the podium by R Veeramani, the president of the Chemical and Allied Exports Promotion Council of India and the chairperson of Gem Granites—as well as a patron of the Indian Monument Manufacturers Association—and M Ramasamy, the managing partner of Amman Granites and the president of the IMMA. Dietrich Kebschull, the chairperson 0f Indo German Export Promotion, which had provided logistical support to the fact-finding mission, moderated the question-and-answer session that followed Rajaram’s presentation. IGEP provides voluntary certification to granite exporters to declare their products “child labour free.” Its brochure warns exporters—its prospective clients—about the “ongoing propaganda against the natural stones,” referring to concerns in Europe and North America over the past two decades about the prevalence of child labour in the industry. The Indian consulate at Munich did not respond to a request for comment.

Seven months later, another German trade fair featured a similar presentation by an Indian diplomat. On 11 January 2019, the opening day of the Domotex carpet fair in Hannover, Madan Lal Raigar, the Indian consul general at Hamburg, held a press conference along with Mahavir Pratap Sharma, Siddh Nath Singh and Sanjay Kumar, all senior office bearers with the Carpet Export Promotion Council, on the “Non Prevalence of Child Labour in the Indian Carpet Industry.” Carpets generated $122.84 million in exports for India in 2018, according to ITC data, with Europe and North America accounting for about a quarter.

According to the official press release, which was drafted by the CEPC and carried the heading “Child Labour in Hand Made Carpets from India no longer a Big Problem,” Raigar “emphasized in the same way as other speakers from the side of the Indian exporters that criticism of child labour in the carpet industry is very strongly exaggerated.” He was basing this on an analysis carried out by the NCPCR, in which “UNICEF and the regional and federal state level organizations for the protection of children and safeguarding their education and health conditions intensively participated.” Sharma was quoted saying that the CEPC intended “to take strict legal action against organizations or agencies or film producers who create this false, fictional, unreasonable, biased and malicious propaganda for self-gain and in bargain tarnish the image of the entire industry and the country as a whole.” When we approached the Indian consulate in Hamburg for comment, we were asked to approach the CEPC. Sanjay Kumar refused to speak to us on the record for this story.

Both press conferences were reporting the results of fact-finding missions constituted by the NCPCR, in response to allegations of child labour by European organisations. The granite report came on the heels of a report by the India Committee of the Netherlands—it has since been renamed Advocating Rights in South Asia, or ARISA—an NGO that focusses on campaigning and advocacy for human rights, which exposed wide-ranging labour violations in India’s granite quarries, including the existence of child labour. The report on carpets responded to an investigative report by Plusminus, a business magazine show on the German television channel ARD, which had found children working in carpet-manufacturing units in Agra.

These exposés were in line with previous reports on child labour in the two industries, which have contributed to outrage in the West, and to efforts to ban granite and carpet exports from India, since the 1980s. The changing global distribution of labour, in which many of the world’s manufacturing processes have been outsourced to the developing world, has raised frequent concerns over global value chains being built on exploitative labour practices, including the use of child labour.

All stakeholders we spoke to agreed that the child-labour situation in the two industries has improved over time, but it was only the NCPCR and industry figures who were claiming that child labour had been completely eradicated in the industries. Over the past year, we visited several granite quarries in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, as well as home-based carpet looms near Agra, in collaboration with the facilitators of the original studies. We found a number of adolescent workers at the quarries, and children as young as six years old working at looms in their village. They told us that they were working to help support their families and would rather attend school regularly. Their parents told us they would like their children not to work, but could not afford to go without the additional income their children brought in.

“The child-labour act was passed in 1986, but the act has not eliminated child labour until today,” R Kashi Ramulu, the president of the Telangana Trade Union Council, a labour-rights NGO, told us. “Child labour is there,” he said. “It is present in the brick industry, in granite, in hotels, the automobile industry, the informal sector.”

In attempting to prove a negative, the NCPCR made conclusions based on questionable study design and stated those conclusions without providing any supporting evidence. And while it has been the policy of the Indian government and industry to push back against allegations of labour violations, the enlistment of a statutory body meant to protect children from exploitation for this purpose raises further questions of propriety and institutional independence. We attempted to have the NCPCR chairperson, Priyank Kanoongo, comment on these issues, but although he met us twice, he refused to give an interview on the record. Email requests for an appointment to conduct an on-the-record interview went unanswered.

Shanta Sinha, a former NCPCR chairperson, welcomed the reports, since the eradication of child labour in the two industries would be a major achievement. “But I’m not sure whether this is really true, sometimes, because I know the kind of effort it needs to get children out of work and into school,” she said. “I’ve been working on the issue of abolition of child labour for four decades and I really would like to know how this happened.” The processes by which the government had achieved this were important, because “if this has happened, it needs to be replicated everywhere. I would like another document from UNICEF and NCPCR telling us how this happened.” She did not want to comment on the specifics of the studies, since she had not studied the methodology involved.

In both reports, the NCPCR leaned on the added authority of UNICEF to support its claims. The reports on granite carried UNICEF’s logo. Although the reports never appeared on the NCPCR website, Lithos Marmor und Granit, a natural-stone wholesaler based in the German province of Hesse, published the reports and the accompanying press release on its website, with the heading, “No child labour in quarries in India, confirmed UNICEF & NCPCR.” (The press release has since been taken down, but the website still hosts the reports.) The carpet report mentions that the audit in Agra was carried out “in collaboration with UNICEF.”

UNICEF, however, distanced itself from the reports and their findings. Javier Aguilar, the chief child-protection officer at UNICEF India, was part of the fact-finding team to the granite quarries. “We concur with the findings which apply to mining sites which UNICEF visited along with NCPCR,” he told us. “It cannot be generalised for all mines in India.” As for the carpets report, he denied that UNICEF was part of the audit in Agra. “UNICEF did not participate in this exercise,” he said. “If we were part of this, I would not hesitate to tell you we were part of this. But this was not the case.”

We asked him about a line in the report that said representatives from UNICEF India had attended a technical meeting in Agra, along with those from the NCPCR, CEPC, the district administration and related departments and experts. “We did not participate in that technical meeting,” Aguilar said. He had heard of the meeting taking place, but reiterated, “I was not there. None of my colleagues were there.”

IGEP had been involved in the carpet report as well, and Kebschull contested Aguilar’s assertion. “UNICEF was involved/participate at every stage,” he told us in an email interview. He sent us the minutes of the technical meeting, held on 16 November 2018, in which Nirmala Pandey, a child-protection specialist at UNICEF India, was listed among the participants. Najwa Mekki, the media head at UNICEF, clarified that “Ms Pandey attended only this one meeting and informed NCPCR that UNICEF will not be participating in the fact-finding exercise. UNICEF staff did not participate in the subsequent fact-finding exercise nor did we share, develop or assist in developing any questionnaire and neither did we provide any other technical input for the same.”

Kebschull also sent us the attendance sheet of a subsequent meeting, held on 4 December, which contained the signature of Sayed Imran, a UNICEF consultant. He also told us that Zeeshan Ansari was present during the field research. Imran told us, and Mekki confirmed, that he is a district-level technical resource person hired by Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University for a child-protection project and had attended the meeting in a personal capacity. Similarly, Mekki said, Ansari is a technical resource person working for “UNICEF’s partner agency, Institute for Entrepreneur Development.” He had been asked by the state labour department to participate in the exercise, “as he is familiar with the area.”

“UNICEF staff or consultants attend many meetings with various stakeholders and partners when invited, or requests consultants to attend on our behalf,” Mekki told us. “This does not mean that UNICEF has participated in the study or is party to the findings or were the findings shared with us.” She shared a letter UNICEF India had sent Kanoongo, on 30 October 2019, asking him to “remove the reference to UNICEF in the report.”

ON 23 AUGUST 2017, the India Committee of the Netherlands published a report on labour practices in India’s granite quarries, in collaboration with Stop Child Labour, an international coalition of NGOs and trade unions. “Half of the total world exports of raw granite originates from India,” the report, titled The Dark Sites of Granite, said. “But this decorative and highly valued natural stone comes with a high price, mainly ‘paid’ by the workers in South Indian granite quarries.”

Glocal Research, a Hyderabad-based organisation that conducted field research for the report, visited 22 quarries—eight in Andhra Pradesh, eight in Telangana and six in Karnataka—between June and November 2016. The three states contribute almost ninety percent of all granite produced in India. The companies that owned the quarries all produced granite for export to Europe and North America, either directly or through intermediaries. Through site inspections and interviews with workers, the researchers found that all the quarries were violating several of the International Labour Organisation’s criteria for decent work.

None of the 22 quarries had an “active” trade union, though a few had management-friendly ones with low membership. The quarries followed a form of labour recruitment that has been prevalent in India since colonial times, relying on migrant labourers hired by middlemen. All of them made advance payments to the workers, a practice that, since it prevents workers from changing employers, is a gateway to debt bondage—a form of modern slavery. (Nine quarries were reported as having “prevalence of debt bondage.”) Seventeen quarries did not have a provident fund for workers, and ten quarries did not provide overtime pay. Five quarries paid workers lower than the legal minimum wage, which was Rs 250 per day at the time of the study. (The daily minimum wage for unskilled labour in the non-agricultural sector was raised to Rs 350 in January 2017.) None of the quarries provided all workers the requisite protective equipment, and 14 quarries did not have safe drinking water.

Although the reports never appeared on the NCPCR website, Lithos Marmor und Granit, a natural-stone wholesaler, published the reports and the accompanying press release on its website, with the heading, “No child labour in quarries in India, confirmed UNICEF & NCPCR.”

Although it noted “a decrease in the magnitude of child labour in core quarry operations” as compared to earlier studies—conducted in 2006, 2009 and 2014—the report said that researchers found underage workers at seven of the 22 quarries, most of them involved in the ancillary operations of waste-stone processing, which was mostly being carried out by women and children earning less than the minimum wage. Thirteen workers were conclusively determined to be under the age of 18, adolescents who are prohibited under Indian law from working in “hazardous occupations,” including mining.

This was almost certainly an underestimate. Lizette Vosman, a spokesperson for ARISA, told us that this number did not include cases in which “a researcher’s own assessment was that the worker was a child but [they] could not irrefutably determine this.” In addition, the researchers found, only six quarries had an age-verification system for its workers, and none of them had a prevention-and-rehabilitation system for child labourers.

The report was almost entirely ignored by the Indian media, but created a minor controversy in Europe. “This report has changed things,” Bram Callewier, a director of the Belgian natural-stone wholesaler Beltrami, which was named as one of the companies importing granite from the sampled quarries, told the trade magazine Natural Stone Specialist. “All our suppliers have come back to us and said they agree it’s a problem.” The UK-based retailers John Lewis and Habitat stopped selling products containing Indian granite, though the former withdrew the ban within a month after an internal investigation found “that there is no evidence to suggest there are issues with the quarry from which we source our Star Galaxy granite.” The Dutch banks Rabobank and ING, which had provided loans to three of the granite importers named in the report, announced on Twitter that they would discuss the findings with their clients.

Callewier added in his interview, published on 30 September 2017, that granite sales were already being affected by the rise in popularity of alternatives such as man-made quartz and porcelain. Indian suppliers, he said, “understand that if the product is getting a bad name it will only make things worse for them.”

A rehabilitation exercise was already in progress, however, through an unlikely ally.

Within days of publication of the report, the NCPCR was on the case. It took cognisance of the matter—citing its responsibility, under Section 13 (1) of the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, to “inquire into violation of child rights and recommend initiation of proceedings in such cases”—and decided to conduct a fact-finding exercise the following month to look into the allegations of child labour.

In September 2017, the NCPCR carried out a fact-finding exercise in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana “to find out the child labour situation in the granite industry.” In April 2018, it conducted a similar exercise in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The reports of the two phases, which came out in December 2017 and June 2018, respectively, and carried the logos of the NCPCR, the respective state governments and UNICEF, had almost identical findings—including the same grammatical and typographical errors—which suggested they had been copy-pasted.

“The granite industry is completely mechanized,” both reports said. “This means that all processes are mechanized and there is no scope for manual labour especially no scope for child labour. It was noticed that the granite slab mining is a highly mechanized operation using heavy duty machines for excavations, cutting and drilling. The drilling, bolder cutting, slab cutting, loading & unloading and cleaning are all done with the machines. These machines are operated by the workers who are employed by the mines.”

This assertion had not been challenged by the ICN report, which had, after all, noted “a significant reduction in recent years” in the use of child labour at granite quarries, as a result of “various initiatives … undertaken by the government, natural stone industry, labour unions and NGOs to tackle the problem.” However, the ICN report went on to say:

Contrary to core quarry operations, the involvement of child labour in processing of waste stone into cobbles and blue metal chips did not receive much attention thus far. As waste stone disposal is not considered a responsibility of the quarry owner, family labour is involved mainly outside the quarry. As part of this study, six waste stone processing locations were visited (two in each state) and interviews were conducted with 45 workers involved in waste stone processing. Nearly 80% of the labour force in this activity are women and children. Children below 14 years account for nearly 3% of the workforce in waste stone processing and 5% of the workforce is between 15 to 18 years old. With 8% child labour engaged in this activity, the findings of this study indicate that the magnitude of child labour in the processing of waste stone has not changed.

Vandhana Kandhari, a child-protection specialist at UNICEF India who was mentioned in the acknowledgements of both NCPCR reports, told us that the reports established that “in the mechanised sector, you do not find children working. These are highly sophisticated machines, which are not operated by the children.” However, she went on to admit that “there is a possibility that there are allied works that are connected to the mines where children could possibly be involved and do small jobs such as bringing tea or working at home, which you don’t see visibly.” She said that UNICEF had recommended to the NCPCR, “Even if you don’t see children at the mining site itself, very often you will see children working at home on the waste material and other such.”

The NCPCR fact-finding teams, however, do not seem to have inspected allied quarry operations at all. There was no mention at all in either report about waste-stone processing. Neither did they mention the other shortcomings on child labour pointed out by the ICN report: the lack of age-verification or prevention-and-rehabilitation systems. Instead, both reports made the blanket statement that the mines “are far from the villages and there is no sign of children being employed there in the mines.”

Although it noted “a decrease in the magnitude of child labour in core quarry operations” as compared to earlier studies, the report said that researchers found underage workers at seven of the 22 quarries, most of them involved in the ancillary operations of waste-stone processing. Courtesy Benjamin Pütter

A member of the Glocal Research study team, who did not want to be named, told us that although he agreed that there had been some improvement in the prevalence of child labour in the granite industry, it had “not completely disappeared.” The industry had been mechanised, he said, but “advanced technology is being used by only few granite companies. Many companies—more than fifty percent of the granite owners—are still using small drilling machines that are called jockeys. Each jockey has to be operated by three workers. They are all migrant labourers, so there is the scope for 15-to-18-year-old children being employed as jockey operators.”

The NCPCR teams did not visit the same quarries his team had, the Glocal Research representative told us. Moreover, his team had visited the quarries in secret, without the involvement of the quarry owners, something the NCPCR fact-finders had not done. This meant that any children who were employed in the quarries could have been hidden away for the duration of the visit.

A former advisor to the NCPCR on child-labour issues told us, on condition of anonymity, that the commission would always conduct unannounced visits in the past. Today, he said, the NCPCR prioritises investing in its website and a digital alarm button. “It’s not politically intended to find something.” He characterised UNICEF as “the mouthpiece of the government.”

In early 2019, we made unannounced visits to granite quarries in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. We found a number of adolescents under the age of 18 working in quarry operations. We visited Virat Industry, a polishing unit in Ballikurava, a village near the town of Chimakurthy in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district. There, we met a 16-year-old migrant from Assam, who was polishing granite slabs. At Avenir Granites, we met a 17-year-old migrant from Odisha, who had joined the company three months before. He said he was hired at the recommendation of his brother, a 23-year-old who had been working in local quarries for the past eight years—since he was aged 15. At a mine owned by Kishore Granites, a migrant from Odisha who had celebrated his eighteenth birthday a week before emerged from working the night shift as a slab-cutter. He told us he had been recruited by a middleman at his village, and joined Kishore Granites as an underage worker four months before.

At a migrant colony in Ballikurava, quarry workers—all of them Dalits or Adivasis, who had migrated from Madhya Pradesh—were living eight or ten people to a room. We met a 17-year-old jockey operator who worked at three local quarries. He had never attended school, he told us, and had been in Ballikurava for the past two months, after previously working at a thread factory in Allahabad. He was unhappy with his work. He was earning Rs 300 a day, he said, which is less than the minimum wage. He was planning to move on the following month. Another migrant at the colony told us he was 19 years old, but added that he had dropped out of school after completing his tenth standard—which Indian students complete at the age of 16—two months before.

A few days later, we visited quarries in the Karimnagar district of Telangana. At Venkat Granites, a polishing unit, we met a 20-year-old who had started working at the quarry four years before, when he was 16 years old. At Imperial Granite, a unit of R Veeramani’s Gem Granites, a worker told us he was 19 years old, but admitted to dropping out of the tenth standard a year ago. He had had to discontinue his studies in order to support his six siblings after his father, an agricultural labourer, died of jaundice.

During a further visit to Karimnagar, in December, we found more underage workers, who told us they worked at quarries on Sundays and other holidays. A 14-year-old Tamil migrant said that she accompanied her mother to work at the stone-cutting unit at Aditya Granites on school holidays, between 6 am and 2 pm. “While my mother does the strenuous job, I—along with other children like me—engage in segregation of stones,” she told us. “Though the job is not laborious, I don’t like doing it because the chemicals used in polishing and the dust cause pimples and rashes. I also find sorting the stones a boring job. But if I spend a few hours with my mother there, we get paid extra.” The principal at the government school she attends called her a bright student.

A 12-year-old told us that he had been accompanying his mother to work at granite-polishing units on school holidays for the past four to five years. He also complained that the chemicals used in polishing slabs caused irritation in his eyes. However, he said, he enjoyed going to work, since he could play there once he was done. “My mother ensures that I go to school every day,” he told us. “She even beats me up if I say I don’t want to go to school or want to go with her to the factory.”

Another 14-year-old said that he looked forward to going to the polishing unit with his mother every Sunday. “I get to meet other boys, and we play there after finishing work,” he told us. “I get to have fun while contributing to the family income.” He added, however, that he found the sound from the cutting units irritating, and that most families prefer to take their sons to work, while their daughters stay at home to look after younger siblings.

At the NTR Tamil colony, we met a 12-year-old girl who accompanies her mother to the polishing factory at Karimala Granites every Sunday. Her mother, she told us, had been working at the factory for the past five years. “I don’t like going there,” she said. “Collecting and separating stones under the blazing sun is no fun.”

We also met a 14-year-old who had migrated a month before from Rajasthan, where he had also been employed at a granite factory. He had found a job at Laxminarayana Stonex, in Waddepally, where he operated machinery that slices granite boulders into slabs. “I work 12 hours a day,” he told us. “I just have to operate the machine, and it is not a labour-intensive job. I stay at the quarry, in quarters assigned to us. I cook for myself.” He had never attended school and was worried about sending money back home, to support his parents and two siblings.

“THE THING IS that the government would not go unannounced,” Kandhari told us. “It was not our decision to take.” When we showed her pictures of child labourers we had taken on our visits to the quarries, she said, “Very often, when researchers go unannounced, you may see children. That is a possibility.”

If that was the case, we asked her, should the NCPCR’s assertion have been so absolute? Would it not have been more accurate to say that although this fact-finding mission had not encountered child labour, they could not rule it out? “The report is actually written by the NCPCR,” Kandhari said. “But yes, you are right. It is absolute. But in the formal industry, as it was not seen, whichever place we went to, they didn’t see it, so they didn’t want to write like that.” She noted that “most child labour in India is in the informal sector.” However, with over ninety percent of the Indian workforce engaged in some form of informal employment, this was by no means a denial of the existence of child labour.

To counter the ICN’s assertion that the children of quarry workers were employed in allied operations, both NCPCR reports said that the workforce at the quarries is mostly made up of “single migrants,” who “live in dormitories mostly arranged by the quarry owners or by the workers themselves in a group.” However, there was no mention of what proportion of the workers are migrant, or single. In one of the few instances of difference in the two reports’ findings, the second report added the caveat that “if there are migrant labours living with their family including children provision may be made for their education in their mother tongue.” The child labourers we would find in the quarries were all migrant children. Kandhari agreed that most mine workers in India are migrants. “Some of them travel with families,” she said. “Some of them travel without.”

Tirupathi Kishore Babu, the mandal education officer for Chimakurthy, told us that many migrants working in the region’s granite quarries, especially those with children above the age of 14, travelled with their families. His staff, he said, kept tabs on the school attendance of migrant children between the ages of six and 14, since the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education, 2009 only applied to that age group. They would often find these children attending school for two months at a time. The previous survey they had conducted found 20 children under the age of 14, most of them migrants, had dropped out. The children of the migrant labourers, he said, “won’t go to colleges. They study maximum only up to school education, up to 14 years of age. More than that they won’t study. So automatically they will recruit in that sector, along with their parents—for less wages, because they are migrant labourers.” Like everybody else, he agreed that child labour had decreased in the granite industry, “but zero, I can’t say.”

UNICEF’s primary methodological input to the fact-finding mission, Kandhari told us, was to advise the NCPCR “to do the research with stakeholders other than only the ones at the sites.” The fact-finding team does seem to have heeded this advice. In addition to the quarry visits, the team administered semi-structured questionnaires, designed by UNICEF and incorporating suggestions from the NCPCR and experts, to four groups of people in the surrounding areas: children, anganwadi workers, schoolteachers and the community at large.

Only the first group—the children themselves—was asked about child labour. The fourteenth and fifteenth questions in the questionnaire asked whether the children being surveyed had been engaged in any work during the past week, and whether they had spent at least an hour in that week performing any of nine categories of work, including self-employment, wage work, domestic work, unpaid labour or working on a family farm.

The sample sizes for the survey were tiny—only 30 children were interviewed in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, while 178 children were interviewed in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The first report did not mention the response to the question about engaging in any work, and only reported responses to four out of the nine categories of work. Wage work was not one of the categories reported. The report did find, however, that 43 percent of the children surveyed had engaged in unpaid work. It did not say whether unpaid quarry work was included in this category.

The second report provided responses to five categories. It found around ten percent of the respondents engaged in running businesses in each of four categories—working for a wage, performing domestic work, helping their parents with unpaid work and catching fish—while 35 percent of the children said they fetched water and collected firewood. It did not mention the response to the more general question about whether the child had worked at all. Instead, it provided a graph that combined responses to both the fourteenth question and the seventeenth, which asked why they worked, with nine options. For each option—ranging from supplementing family income and helping pay family debt to learning skills and not being interested in school—it provided the proportion of respondents who said “yes” and “no.” Adding up the “yes” responses to the nine options, it appears 33 of the 178 children surveyed—18.5 percent—were engaged in some form of employment.

As part of their “holistic” approach, the NCPCR teams also examined the state of the schools and anganwadis surrounding the quarries, and surveyed the local communities on the effectiveness of local governance. After restating that there “is no scope for child labour,” both reports found that “some children (13+ age) are not regularly attending the schools,” and recommended stronger action to improve educational and skilling facilities. The responses to these surveys, as well as descriptions of the districts surveyed and an introduction to granite mining that seems to have been largely plagiarised from Wikipedia, made up the bulk of both reports, far outweighing any discussion of child labour. There was no mention, either, of the other labour violations reported by the ICN.

While the NCPCR could plausibly argue that those violations fall outside its ambit, the fact-finding teams overstepped this ambit by devoting four points in their findings, and one section in their introductions, to extolling the virtues of the granite industry. Again, the four points were identical in both reports:

There are significantly visible economic activities in the regions where quarries are situated. … The revenues being generated are being spent on social infrastructure and other services. This has a positive impact in the socio-economic well-being of the people in the region and districts.

It was observed that the road facilities, drinking water, schools, anganwadis are relatively better in the localities where mines are under operation.

The industry is a decisive reason for the economic activities and is playing a vital role in local economy. Important economic activities are employment generation, providing housing to the workers, transportation, covering of daily needs etc. There are millions of people connected directly or indirectly with the industry.

The granite industry is considerably contributing to the Indian economy and has been an important source of revenue generation for the country. There is a direct positive connection between the development of the economy and of the stone industry.

However, no evidence other than generalities—such as “capital requirement is less” or that granite “is a major contributor in foreign exchange earnings”—was provided for these assertions either. Besides rubbishing any suggestion that the industry, which has been notorious for its use of child labour, was still doing so, the NCPCR had taken it upon itself to advertise the importance of the industry it had set out to regulate.

Other than noting that it had taken cognisance, the NCPCR did not mention, let alone rebut the specific findings of, the ICN report. However, in the press release accompanying the reports, which was uncritically reproduced by some Indian newspapers, it took a parting shot at the ICN researchers. “The report published by the India Committee of Netherland is based on the visits and survey conducted during the Monsoon when quarries are mostly closed. Therefore, the timings of the visits are questionable.”

This was a lie. The section on methodology in the ICN report clearly said that the field visits were conducted between June and November 2016. “Each sample quarry,” the report added, “was visited twice for data collection because granite production varies among seasons (during rainy season production comes down as quarries fill with water).”

If anything, it was the timing of the NCPCR’s visit to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana that was questionable. The fact-finding mission took place in the month of September, which is part of the monsoon. In fact, the report conceded as much by explaining away the low attendance in schools as a result of the rainy season, helpfully adding that the monsoon lasts from July to September.

“FOR MANY it is absolute cosiness right now, in the autumn. A carpet makes it warmer and more homely. But what kind of product do you bring into your house? Does the smell of new carpets perhaps have something to do with harmful substances? And who produces what we put in our living room? Our reporters have actually found harmful substances, and also child labour.”

Thus began the 24 October 2018 episode of Plusminus. The episode presented the results of an investigation into working conditions at home-based looms in villages near Agra, which the reporters visited along with Benjamin Pütter, a German expert on child labour in India, and Dilip Sevarthi, an Indian activist who has been campaigning against child labour for decades.

The journalists found a number of children working in almost every loom they visited, including a four-year-old girl. Most of the children worked up to twelve hours a day in order to supplement their family incomes, at the cost of going to school. This last detail is significant, because the Indian government amended the child-labour law, in 2016, to allow children below the age of 14 to work in family-owned enterprises for up to 14 hours a week, provided it does not come in the way of attending school. Some of the children had injuries in their hands, sustained while working on the looms.

After obtaining the name and address of the client procuring carpets from the village, the journalists visited their Agra office with a hidden camera, posing as potential buyers. The exporter confirmed that they sourced carpets from the village, and said the carpets are exported to the West, including Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. On being asked about the persistence of child labour in the industry, one exporter said, “We do our best. The labour ministry does its best. But nobody can rule out child labour a hundred percent.”

The journalists contacted two major German carpet importers for comment. “We have concluded contracts with all our suppliers in which they undertake to exclude child labourers,” the company Teppich-Kibek said in a statement. XXXLutz, another major importer, was more circumspect. “Since some producers produce carpets at home-based looms, a hundred-percent exclusion of child labour cannot be guaranteed,” its statement said.

This time, it was the Carpet Export Promotion Council that contacted the NCPCR. “The content of the documentary was initially examined by the CEPC and found that the report does not have a base,” the NCPCR report said. “It was observed that the report can cause irreparable damage to the carpet industry and can effect in the livelihood of hundreds of thousands families engaged in carpet weaving.” Following advice received from the ministry for women and child development, the NCPCR decided to conduct “an audit in the area in collaboration with UNICEF, UP State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the District Administration.”

The report said that the NCPCR identified five locations using four sources of information: the CEPC, the district labour department, carpet wholesalers and local stakeholders. Again, the fact-finding team administered four questionnaires. As in the granite study, two questionnaires were used in local schools and anganwadis. Another questionnaire was used in home-based looms, covering “information related to their children and their education,” the report said. “Also it allows to examine the fingers of children to learn if those fingers are used in knotting the carpet. It may be noted that, the agile fingers of a child which is engaged in carpet weaving usually affect the part of the fingers which can be seen and felt through physical examination.” The fourth questionnaire was a factory-auditing tool designed by IGEP. The audit covered 12 schools, six anganwadis, 63 carpet-weaving families and 14 factories.

We found children as young as six years of age working at home-based carpet looms.

Unlike in the granite study, the NCPCR did not report even partial results of the questionnaires, sticking to sweeping findings. The survey found that all children under the age of 14 were enrolled in schools and that no child was found working in either looms or factories. None of the children showed the physical effects of carpet-weaving in their fingers. “Children of households having looms are going school and their socio economic conditions are better in comparison to other families those who don’t have proper economic activities for regular income like carpet weaving,” the report said. “Due to regular income, it was observed by the Commission that some families are sending their children to private school.”

Another finding said, “Since looms are located at homes, it is quite usual for the children to see the work and sit with their parents to learn the skill of knotting out of curiosity. This may be accepted as far as learning is concerned. However, no child was found working there to subsidize the family income while missing out on school hours and pay.”

“MAKE ARRANGEMENTS to feed us; then we will send our children to school,” Mariyam Begum told us when we visited her home in Milik, a village in Firozabad district, about a hundred kilometres from Agra. It was June 2019, and four children were hard at work in the courtyard, where she had set up a carpet loom. They work from 6 am to 8 pm every day, with an hour off for lunch. Mariyam’s nine-year-old daughter was still learning “the skill of knotting,” but her 12-year-old had mastered the art. When we asked the older sister whether she liked the work, she smiled and shook her head. “We don’t like this,” her 16-year-old neighbour, who was also working at the loom, said. “She does not either. But we have to do it out of necessity.”

Across the road, Nabibaksh Khan had set up his own loom in his courtyard. Two of his four daughters were working away at it. He told us that he had started weaving carpets as a child, following in his father’s footsteps. “There was no other work,” he told us. His 15-year-old daughter does not attend school, he said, but her nine-year-old sister does, working at the loom for three to four hours a day once she returns. “Sometimes they don’t go to school,” Khan said. “They are unable to go. Then who will make this? How will we fill our stomachs? People say, ‘Don’t make them work before they turn 18,’ but we are forced to.”

Naresh Paras, the coordinator of Mahfooz, part of the Child Rights and You network of NGOs, explained how child labour persisted in the carpet industry. “A lot has improved over the years,” he said. “In factory-based work one doesn’t see kids.” But, he added, “work must be done. So they get contractors. They take material from factories and give it in their homes and say, ‘Prepare it here.’ The whole family is involved and children work alongside. So they say he is helping the family. So the definition of child labour has changed.”

“In Milik, much of the population is Muslim,” Dilip Sevarthi, the child-labour activist who had accompanied the Plusminus team and was also facilitating our visit, told us. “This area has brackish water, which is a problem for crops and for drinking water.” With limited employment opportunities, especially in agriculture, he said, the carpet industry had been the primary source of work for the past forty years.

Imran Khan, whose family owns Mughal Carpets, a retailer in Agra that is a member of the CEPC, told us that while they sourced carpets largely from factories, most of their durris—woollen rugs—were from home-based looms. “For example, we have a showroom and we need ten or fifteen pieces,” he said. “One house can’t make all ten or so. One carpet takes between two and three months to make. So the contractors have contacts with multiple villages. They have contacts across houses. They go there and give orders. They know which loom will fall vacant. They play a role as a mediator. That is beneficial for both.”

“The carpet contractor is from outside,” Sevarthi said. “The contractor gets the maximum benefit. He may give between four thousand and ten thousand rupees per carpet. And a carpet could take months. So the minimum wage is barely anything.” The more hands that are deployed, the faster a carpet can be produced and the more money a family can earn, which is why children are roped in.

Khan confirmed that child labour had not been wiped out in the industry. “In the villages, education isn’t much,” he said. “What they do is they deploy the kids, pay them less and take more work from contractors. For instance, if there is a loom in my house and in the neighbourhood there are homes and kids, I call them and say, ‘I’ll give you Rs 100 for a day’s work.’ But, for me, Rs 200 I’m getting from the contractor. Then I give them Rs 100, get them to work all day. For them it’s a lot of money.”

In the village of Suraj Malkapura, predominantly comprised of the oppressed-caste Nishad community, we visited a loom owned by one Bhagwan Singh. His wife, Usha, told us that none of their three daughters and two sons attend school, though two of their daughters attended a non-formal education centre Sevarthi’s NGO runs in the village, for three hours a day. Singh was the first resident of the village to learn carpet-weaving, when he was ten years old. Their nine-year-old daughter was hard at work at the loom. She told us she had been working for the past year, did not like the work and wanted to go to regular school. However, Usha said that she could not send her children to school, as they were needed to work to support their nine-person household.

Another woman, Kamla, told us that all six of her children worked at their loom. Her two oldest children, aged 12 and 14, had passed the fifth standard in the local government school and were enrolled at a private school, which charges Rs 150 a month in fees. She could not afford to educate the others, and the two children who had attended government school could barely read and write. They attended the government school very infrequently, once or twice a month. Now they were attending the private school whenever there were no carpets to weave, for five to ten days at a time. A number of parents we interviewed told us the same story: they wanted to regularly send their children to school, but they needed their children to contribute to carpet-weaving, their only source of income, in order to make ends meet.

The more hands that are deployed, the faster a carpet can be produced and the more money a family can earn, which is why children are roped in.

Only 75 children were enrolled at the government primary school in the village. Aisha Sabreen, a teacher in the school, told us that only about half of the enrolled children attended classes regularly. The school was almost empty on the day we visited, because most of the students were helping their parents with the harvest. She confirmed that many children were involved in carpet-weaving, and said that they had had several meetings with parents in the village, asking them to send their children to school.

The NCPCR report took issue with the Plusminus team, saying that the “reporters have not followed the established procedures if they had truly found any child labour.” None of the concerned authorities received a complaint about the use of child labour; “only CEPC reported the same.” Sevarthi explained the limited impact of filing a complaint. “The labour department, they have no other work,” he said. “If I go and say in so-and-so village children are working, they will undertake a raid. They will go and threaten the people and say, ‘Don’t put the children to work.’ They tell the parents, ‘We will send you to prison.’ Then everyone will get scared and they will say no children are working. Even if you catch people in a raid, what will you do? There is a loom in the house; the contractor is not there. The kid is working with the parents. What will you do? What about rehab? Solve their problems, not with raids. The law must have the provision of rehabilitation.”

BOTH THE GRANITE AND CARPET REPORTS had one finding in common, with almost identical wording: “it is required to have a monitoring system (independent) to control the basic social and environmental standards.” In both cases, the NCPCR recommended the “ISES 2020 standard (IGEP Certification).”

This was a curious inclusion. IGEP helped facilitate both studies, as well as the press conferences in Germany where the reports were presented. Independent monitoring systems are already being used in both industries. IGEP is not the only certifying authority, and the reports did not explain why they were recommending IGEP, and not any of its competitors. Since IGEP makes money from certifying products as free of child labour, this recommendation was, in effect, an advertisement for IGEP.

The private certification industry was born out of compromise. In the 1980s, several exposés on child labour, particularly in Uttar Pradesh’s carpet industry, by activists such as the Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, led to considerable consumer anger in Europe and North America. There were calls for boycotts of products made with child labour in several countries. In 1992, Tom Harkin, a Democratic senator in the United States, introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act. Fearing industry collapse in the wake of a Western boycott, industry groups such as the CEPC and the All India Carpet Manufacturers Association began holding meetings with the NGOs campaigning against child labour—which had come together as the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude—in 1991. They accepted the SACCS’s position that a voluntary-certification system on the part of exporters, who would commit to eschewing child labour and submit to an audit process. Satyarthi got the United Nations Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution recommending the use of voluntary certification and successfully lobbied Harkin to allow a labelling system at the point of export to replace self-monitoring by importers.

The various stakeholders came together to launch the Rugmark initiative. The working group that debated the modalities of the scheme was led by Dietrich Kebschull’s IGEP, then an organ of the German commerce ministry, which preferred voluntarism to an import ban. Besides the SACCS and industry bodies, it also included the International Labour Organisation and UNICEF. The group planned to announce the initiative at the 1994 Domotex fair. However, a 1996 history of Rugmark by the International Labor Rights Forum reporteds, as “it became clear that Congress would not take up the Harkin bill for passage soon, due to relevant committee preoccupation with the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement … enthusiasm for Rugmark by the Indian government and important segments of the carpet industry began to lag. By early 1994, U.S. carpet importers were encouraging their supporters to resist Rugmark, since they had become convinced that Harkin would not gain passage during the 103rd Congress.”

The CEPC sought to delay implementation of Rugmark in three ways. First, it argued that instead of being voluntary, the label should include all manufacturers and should not be introduced until most companies could comply. This was resisted by the NGO representatives, who, the ILRF report said, “argued that a voluntary program begun only by those exporters who were able to oversee the terms of their loomowners’ labor practices was preferable to no program at all, and was probably also the only way in which a labeling program could ever get off the ground.” Second, the CEPC tried to introduce an external monitoring firm to conduct audits instead of internally training inspectors. Third, it contended that the NGOs in the working group were insufficiently representative and sought the inclusion of NGOs that were not affiliated to the SACCS. With international pressure lessening, several exporters threatened to disassociate themselves from Rugmark if their conditions were not met. Nevertheless, the label was launched in September 1994. It soon covered carpet exporters in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Kebschull was the first chairperson in Rugmark, and has controlled the label since. He holds the trademark to the label in India, the child-labour activist Benjamin Pütter told us. When NGOs began baulking at Kebschull’s proximity to the industry and wanted to expel him, Pütter noted, “he said, ‘You see, I am legally the person who owns the name Rugmark. You cannot kick me out.’ … He took the name and the label with him. So Rugmark had to rename, otherwise this would have been a big mess.” Claudia Brück, a board member of Fairtrade Germany who was involved in the deliberations, told us that Rugmark International was trying to bring the label closer to “the current discussions on sustainability discourse,” and that Kebschull was “not to be moved to open up to these ideas.” He saw NGOs as “a limitation of his influence than an improvement of the system,” Brück said. In 2009, Rugmark International changed its name to Goodweave. Kebschull, however, contested this history, saying that the trademark is held by Rugmark Foundation India, for which IGEP conducts the certification process. As for the rift with Rugmark International, he said, “It was a long discussion involving lawyers on both sides. It ended with an ‘amicable solution,’ which commits both sides not to speak in a negative way about the other one.”

A slide from an IGEP presentation to Indian granite exporters.

A year before the split, IGEP signed a memorandum of understanding with the IMMA and a German natural-stone trade association to introduce a similar voluntary-certification system for mica and granite factories, in cooperation with Rugmark. With the growing anger in Europe over child labour in the granite industry, which led to a number of German municipalities to boycott gravestones made in India during the 2000s, there had been growing acceptance of voluntarism to stave off import bans. Other labels for granite, such as XertifiX, co-founded by Pütter—he is no longer associated with the label and focusses on advocacy efforts—and Fairstone, have emerged.

The IMMA has consistently sought to defend the reputation of the granite industry in the West. Its website chronicles its attempts to push back against accusations of child labour in the industry from Germany, Japan and the United States. In September 2007, it brought editors from six European magazines to visit granite-manufacturing sites. It also successfully sued Pütter and the former German labour minister Norbert Blüm, who was then chairperson of XertifiX, to prevent them from informing municipalities that Indian-made gravestones could use child labour, since products made by children are not prohibited in Germany.

IGEP has also participated in this reputation-laundering. In a presentation made to Indian granite exporters, it described the work of Western NGOs as “massive propaganda.” The voluntary-certification system is funded by a percentage of the trade value of labelled goods, paid by both the importer and the exporter. Therefore, it is in IGEP’s interest to tell exporters that it is on their side. An IGEP brochure expands on this:

Activists and non-governmental organizations in large-scale campaigns raise the accusation that Indian natural stones are mined and processed in large scale by children. … Final settlement of all legal issues in this context, especially with regard to European law and the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the prohibition of discrimination, will take some time. Doubts about the adequacy of the approach seems quite appropriate, especially since it is the honorable and traditional branches of industry in the main who have come under suspicion. This has threatened a successful industry and many thousands of lives in the country of India. Given the ongoing propaganda against the natural stones, it is advisable to already adjust to the coming regulations, requirements, prohibitions and effects on trade.

When we asked Kebschull about the presentation, he made an oblique reference to Pütter, who has alleged in the past that auditors and journalists have been killed at granite quarries. (We were unable to independently verify Pütter’s assertions.) “Is this not propaganda?” Kebschull asked. “In a country like India where the Hindu tradition makes killing of animals absolutely a taboo and the cow is worshipped as a goddess this can even be seen as colonial arrogance and racism.” It is, of course, not true that Hindu religious sensibilities have completely eradicated the phenomenon of Indians committing murder.

In a similar case, when the US news channel CNN published a documentary on child labour in the Indian carpet industry, in 2014, IGEP held a round-table meeting with representatives of the AICMA and CEPC. According to a 2014 IGEP newsletter—which, incidentally, carries an editorial by Kebschull welcoming Narendra Modi’s election victory—about eighty manufacturers and exporters attended the meeting to discuss the “dangerous consequences” of the “false allegations.” The speakers, including Kebschull, “emphasized that the whole industry has been put on the accusation bench and that fast action is now urgently necessary. … IGEP promised to do its best to help accelerate necessary steps and to create and disseminate information for buyers.” The NCPCR’s reports seem to be a step in this regard.

The ISES 2020 standard goes further than other labels by declaring certified products “are free of child labour.” XertifiX merely states that no child labour was encountered during “unannounced, independent inspections.” Fairstone uses a similar formulation. Kebschull told us that “Rugmark gives no guarantee, but a promise along with the best possible control system.” If any company is found to be using child labour, he said, “police has to take action and in addition, the buyer is informed and the Indian company loses all its orders. This is sufficient to avoid child labour in that sector.”

However, as the ISES 2020 website notes, “Non compliance with aspects of the requirements does not lead to exclusion of certification. Instead, IGEP has chosen an approach of cooperation with the companies. In case of non compliance the auditors and IGEP will—together with the company—develop a corrective action plan … Only in cases of total unwillingness and disinterest in setting socially and environmentally compliant, companies will be excluded from the certification process.” Also, Pütter pointed out, unlike XertifiX and Fairstone, IGEP does not engage a third-party audit of its inspection system, “a key point in independent labelling.”

Therein lies the problem with a voluntary-certification process: it is only as reliable as the certifying agency. If the agency designs the process to favour manufacturers, whose business it needs, and engages in propaganda on their behalf, it cannot be the impartial auditor the system needs it to be. By recommending IGEP’s label in its reports, the NCPCR was essentially advocating for greater privatisation of the fight against child labour, delegating what should be a responsibility of the state to a private entity whose motives are not necessarily altruistic.

We put this contention to Pütter. “Yes, that’s what many people say and that’s what even I think,” he said. “In the end it should be like that. The Indian government has to do all that. For the time being it’s not happening or it’s not being done correctly—others have to come in and help. It’s the same with the funding agencies. When we start schools in India, we don’t do it [so that] the Indian government doesn’t have to do it anymore, but to show the government, this is the part where you haven’t done your task! Please take over! It’s the same here: we show how it’s possible and we hope that the Indian government will do the job in the future.”

At the end of our interview, Pütter put the situation in the historical context. “We started with the Rugmark initiative in the 1990s,” he said. “At the time, there was child labour all over the place. Then, up to the year 2010, I saw no child in no place. Sometimes I saw one running child, and there was an empty place at one loom. That could have been the child. But otherwise, no. And now, with the television team, when I went with Dilip, and also the other occasion I went, I saw 180 children at the carpet looms. We wrote down all the names and the stories. For the last ten years, no one in the public has talked about child labour in the carpet industry. So they are so secure now that they can employ anyone and nobody will bother.”

The problem must be highlighted, he said, so that it could be addressed openly. “People used to say, ‘This is over. We have talked about child labour in the past. Nobody is interested in it anymore. Now we want to talk about something new.’ If that happens, the story just starts again.”


This article was reported in collaboration with the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Netzwerk Recherche, a German association of investigative journalists, provided part of the funds for reporting the article.

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.
Petra Sorge is a journalist based in Berlin. She won the Otto von Habsburg Prize for Minority Reporting in Europe, in 2018, and the Fetisov Journalism Award for Environmental Reporting, 2020. She is now associated with Dow Jones News.
Ankush Kumar is a journalist who specialises in business reporting. He has previously worked at the Economic Times and the Financial Express.
Sadaf Aman is an independent journalist living in Hyderabad. She writes on education and child rights. She previously worked at the New Indian Express.