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Child labourers gear up for Rajasthan's kite-flying festival

Youngsters are working along side adult artisans to manufacture millions of kite strings ahead for the kite-flying festival.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2006 12:14 IST

A large number of children and teenagers are working along side adult artisans to manufacture millions of kite strings ahead of a major kite-flying festival in Rajasthan, an act that often leaves them with painful cuts and wounds.

In Jaipur, the state capital, the annual harvest festival of Makar Sankranti that falls on Saturday this year, is virtually devoted to kite flying. Kite manufacturers expect large business to be generated in the coming days and preparations are being done on a war footing.

Like every year, this year also many manufacturers have roped in a large number of children from neighboring states, as they are equally efficient while being paid half the wages.

That children are vulnerable to wounds dealing with the sharp strings seems hardly to be on the employers' scheme of things. The string of the kite is usually strengthened using powdered glass and a mix of rice.

"It's very dangerous. Our hands often get cut and blood starts coming out. It stings and burns," Chotu, a child labourer, said.

Chotu's employer, Mohammad Yunus, pays him nearly a dollar working almost twelve hours a day, good enough for the 10-year-old who has come to the city with his mother from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state.

Yunus disagrees that the string could be very harmful.

"It doesn't really hurt. Actually if the rice covering somehow gets removed, it could hurt a little but anyway, its not something very major," Yunus said.

That a large number of children are involved in the trade is an open secret, yet the administration claims to be unaware of the happenings.

"If anything like this is found out, we will conduct a thorough inquiry by our department. If we find something amiss, we will take action against those who have engaged the children or are taking work from them," said S. M. Meena, Labour Commissioner of the state.

Yunus admits that approximately 300 children may come to the state from neighbouring regions for the current kite season.

For the kite enthusiast, the high point of the year comes early. January 14 is the most important day for kiting in India. It is the Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti, marking a change of seasons. The holiday is celebrated across India, with the biggest single kite festival occurring in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Others are held in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

A second major kite holiday is celebrated on Independence Day on August 15. Both Hindus and Muslims fly from the rooftop terraces of houses in the periods on opposite sides of Makar Sankranti and Independence Day.

Muslims are more likely than Hindus to fly kites year around. These days the Hindus feel flying is a seasonal activity, linked to holidays. They view it as a celebration-cum-social activity. Except for a hiatus from flying during the month long celebration of Ramadan, Muslims on the other hand view flying more as a pastime and hobby, and they regularly turn up on Fridays and Sundays at the Jodhpur kite field to engage in aerial fights, also known as 'tangles.'

Interest in kite flying is declining because of a perceived lack of recreational time. Kite flying takes time, patience, and practice. Television watching and the Internet are two activities that offer more immediate gratification.

A cottage industry, kite manufacturing sites produce in excess of 5,000 kites a day, over the course of 300 days per year. Workers labor 10 hours a day, six days a week. Plastic kites now constitute 60 per cent of the production. Plastics are easier to manufacture and demand less skilled employes.

The cost of making kites breaks down as follows: 50 percent for bamboo spars, 20-25 percent for labor, 10 percent for other material (plastic, paper, glue, tape), and 1-5 percent for shipping. The remainder is profit.

Babu Khan said that even though he works 12 hours a day he barely keeps his head above water. All kite makers believe they are the last of the line and that their children will not carry on their business.

The employment of children is not an uncommon practice in India. The kite industry is no exception. A visit to a plastics factory found school age boys operating a machine that cut plastic. A girl sorted sheets and counted pieces while her mother made tails in a modified manual paper shredder.

Several vacation and tourism companies now advertise the kite festivals. These festivals do not really nourish the kite industry for Indians. Instead of promoting and preserving a dying traditional culture, the festivals feed off of that sense of authenticity, giving the revenue to tourism. If there is a genuine interest in preserving kiting as a form of recreation in India, the focus must be on the next generation of Indian children. (ANI)

First Published: Jan 12, 2006 12:14 IST