The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Boys behind bars serve global market

Calcutta, Nov. 22: First floor, 26/2C GJ Khan Road, Topsia.

Thirteen boys squeezed into a 50 sq ft room with hammers, cutters, fittings and adhesives. This is where they slog and sleep.

Once the day’s work is done, the door slams shut on them at 1 am. They are locked in for the night so they can’t run away — or escape from the kind of fire that engulfed 33C Topsia Road, in an adjoining lane, early on Wednesday.

Welcome to the sweatshops of Topsia, eastern Calcutta.

For, the first-floor room at 26/2C GJ Khan Road is just one among hundreds of small leather units being operated without any legal sanction — and therefore without following any industry rules, labour laws or fire-safety norms — in the Topsia-Tangra-Tiljala belt.

Citu hasn’t got here, it seems, busy though it has been forming a union in information technology.

Children here labour for 15-18 hours, all for three meals a day. No money, just three meals.

“They are brought from Bihar, Bengal and Calcutta. We train them in making small wallets and bags. They get food and clothes. Once they become skilled, they are even paid,” says Md Mumtaz, known to his workforce as Ustad.

He trains the youngsters and keeps an eye on them. And when there is a manpower crunch, he sets off to scout for some more kids.

Boys like Mohd Imran, barely 10 years old. Having set foot in Calcutta a month ago, he now spends 18 hours every day in the Topsia room applying adhesive to the leather.

“I have come from Gaya district in Bihar. Ustad brought me here. Once I become adept at making wallets, he will give me some money. That will help my parents back home,” says Imran, applying a Dendrite coat on a leather strap.

The boy will never see that day if a fire breaks out in the room with no exit at night.

Ustad claims his 50 sq ft room is safe. “Hum aag se dosti nahin karte… We do not even cook here.”

He justifies locking the labourers in. “Most of them can’t take the hard work and escape. Many even steal before fleeing,” he grumbles.

Does it remind you of Charles Dickens' That was mid-19th century England — this is Bengal, 150 years later. And an industrial revolution is under way, the CPM says.

According to trade estimates, there are no less than 100,000 such workers — the majority below the age of 14 — sweating it out in the confines of such rooms dotting the city.

The bags and wallets they make travel to Europe and America. They don’t know they serve a globalised world from within Calcutta rooms they don’t get to leave.

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