When we arrived that morning in Bhat Basti, a crowd of excited children swarmed around our jeep before I could even open the door. One of them was a pretty 12 year-old girl named Raju. She spends her days toiling in the cavernous quarries of India.
Bhat Basti is a cramped mining village that's sprung up on the scorched earth where the desert meets the city of Jodhpur. That day, I visited with my colleagues from GRAVIS, the local non-governmental organization where I've been working as a researcher for the past four months.
Persistent droughts forced Raju's family to migrate to the city for work. But after laboring in the mines, her father died of silicosis, or occupational lung disease. When her mother fell sick earlier this year, the burden of supporting the family fell to Raju.
She now earns 50 rupees (US $1.25) for each 12 hour day of clearing rubble from the bottom of the mine. Because her low caste status limits her opportunities and the dominating mine owners limit her freedom, it's unlikely that Raju will ever escape this cycle of poverty.
As the community members told me her story, Raju sat on the ground beside us, tracing shapes in the sand with her hands. I tried to imagine those same hands carrying stones to a truck. Then I didn't want to imagine that anymore.
Yet Raju's story is hardly unique: Of the two million mine workers in Rajasthan, an estimated 20 percent are children.
While a host of international treaties and domestic laws prohibit child labor, the authorities rarely enforce them. And because Americans increasingly import the marble and sandstone produced in these mines, we too are complicit in a system that exploits these children. We have betrayed them with our collective indifference.
While most commentators are lauding India's booming IT industry, these mines represent the disturbing underside of today's international economic order. There's a debate about whether globalization represents "a rising tide that will lift all boats" or, more malignantly, "a race to the bottom" where standards spiral downwards. This is a complicated issue -- one that demands careful consideration. But that morning I saw the bottom in Bhat Basti. It's made of sandstone. And children are cutting away at the bedrock.
As an undergraduate student at Duke University a year ago, trade seemed like little more than a numerical exercise. Today, one of the hardest parts about being here is the realization that there are stark limits to my own agency. I can do little more than share the stories of those who suffer in silence.
But because words alone cannot halt this injustice, GRAVIS started a mine workers' union and an integrated program to address their needs, such as raising awareness about potential health hazards and workers' rights; constructing schools so children can learn to read; forming self-help groups so women can earn an alternative income and lobbying the government to award compensation to workers suffering from silicosis.
Yet despite these efforts, I fear we're waging a losing battle. It's still too easy to read about the issue and simply shrug off the tragedy. But child labor isn't a cause, it's a crisis. And the crisis isn't looming, it's arrived.
November 19 is the World Day against Child Abuse and Exploitation, and it's time we began to fulfill our responsibility to these children. What if a coalition of concerned citizens forced the American construction industry to raise its standards? What if we demanded certification for each shipment of stones and boycotted mines that disobeyed the law? What if the international community shamed Indian officials into removing their hands from the mine owner's pockets and start enforcing the laws?
Eradicating child labor won't be easy. But by supporting local movements and altering the way we consume, we can affect change.
That morning, after listening to the adults speak, I asked Raju about her life.
"It's very difficult to work there," Raju told me, her voice barely audible. "But if I didn't, how would we eat?"
When I asked about her dreams, a thin smile crept across Raju's face. "Maybe in my next life," she said softly, "I'll be reborn as a person who travels in a car."