IN SEPTEMBER 1992, the magazine Down to Earth published a short interview with a 14-year-old boy named Daham Oraon. Two years earlier, Oraon had been sold into bonded labour for Rs 500 along with two dozen other children from his village in south Bihar; the middleman who brokered the deal had vanished with the money, and the teenage boy was now working for no pay as a carpet weaver at a loom in Lohara, a village in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh. The interview described his punishing schedule, working 12 hours each day with only an hour of rest, tying thousands of knots to weave fancy carpets even as his hands bled. (“If we stopped working, we would not get any food,” the boy explained.) Oraon had tried to escape twice, only to be caught and beaten by his employer, who had also resisted the desperate entreaties of Oraon’s father to return his teenaged son. After the intervention of a Delhi-based NGO, the district magistrate in Mirzapur ordered a raid on the loom owner’s premises, and the boy was set free. Thirty-year-old Uday Shankar, one of Down To Earth’s founding editors, interviewed Oraon as he was released, and recorded the boy’s hope to return to his own village, go to school, and eke out a decent living.
“I still remember that interview—I remember how shaken the boy was after being rescued from the loom,” Shankar recently told me, as we sat in the plush Business Chambers at New Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel. “I wonder how his life must be today.”
Shankar and Oraon haven’t crossed paths since 1992; but, if Oraon today is in one of the 148 million television-owning households in India, there’s a good chance the former child labourer still encounters Shankar’s work. The man who was then a lanky, slouching reporter for a small environmental magazine, is now CEO of Star India, arguably the nation’s most successful television network, which has a bouquet of 35 channels—spanning general entertainment, movies, kids, sports, music and lifestyle genres in seven languages—that reach rural and urban households across the country.