I.

Raja can’t read or write, and he doesn’t know his age.

But he knows he’s expected to work 16 hours a day, and that he’s never been paid.

Every day, he toils in the dark corner of a New Delhi apartment just a few grimy paces from where he sleeps.

Watch the full documentary on CBC's The National

It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday morning and Raja sits sniffling in torn pants and a crudely cut plaid shirt, his tiny fingers working a swath of cloth into a glittering field of beads.

It isn’t clear how the child ended up in such a state — sickly with a cold, his hair matted, his young skin craggy and visibly parched.

But it is implicit he’s not at liberty to leave. And he likely won’t — at least not without a little help.

 

II.

Around the same time, just minutes away, Dolly Joshi bursts into her office early.

She plans to burst through many more doors today. It’s what she does for a living, and something she does well.

Dolly will be leading dangerous raids on sweatshops believed to employ children.

She’s in charge of liberating them – even if many don’t want to be liberated.

 

III.

Raja is probably 10 or 11, certainly no older than 12. He has a pronounced lisp and a hard time making himself understood.

His slim fingers, however, are ideal for zari, the intricate embroidery and beadwork that embellishes everything from locally sold saris to brand-name blouses marketed in the West.

 

Many of the child labourers in Khanpur Village do zari, which is the intricate embroidery and beadwork found on saris and brand-name blouses. (Bachpan Bachao Andolan)

A month ago, an “employer” brought Raja to New Delhi from a border district in the state of Bihar, nearly 20 hours away by car, and turned him into a modern-day slave.

It isn’t clear whether Raja’s parents willingly gave him up. Given the promise of decent earnings, many parents do.

Raja had no choice but to put thread to needle in the South Delhi neighbourhood of Khanpur Village. The days turned into weeks, stitching together a story that’s all too familiar in India – a country where even the current prime minister was forced by poverty to help his father sell tea as a child.

IV.

Dolly participated in her first child rescue raid a year ago, as an intern.

She froze at the sight of shivering children as young as her youngest brother crammed into a drafty sweatshop stitching bags. Shocked at their neglected state, Dolly vowed to make rescuing young workers a mission.

Trained as a human rights lawyer, Dolly Joshi has been rescuing child workers for a year. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Under existing Indian laws, children under 14 are allowed to work, but their employment is subject to specific conditions that regulate their hours and holidays, as well as the environment in which they work.

More significantly, the law prohibits kids from working in 83 hazardous “occupations and processes.” Zari is one of them.

Employers can face up to three years in prison and a hefty fine for violating the law.

Trained as a human rights lawyer, the 26-year-old is now employed full-time at Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the grassroots “Save the Childhood” movement started by Kailash Satyarthi, the children’s rights activist who shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize with girls’ education campaigner Malala Yousafzai.

BBA pioneered the use of raids to rescue boys and girls from employers who put them to work making bricks, polishing nickel or stitching bags from morning to night for a fraction of the wage paid an adult — if they’re paid at all. The raids target factories, mines, even homes, where girls are often ensnared in domestic servitude.

“People see child labour everywhere, but they don’t think it’s a big issue.”

Dolly has dozens of raids — and many days of exasperation — under her belt.

“People see child labour everywhere, but they don’t think it’s a big issue,” she says.

“They say, ‘They’re working because they need money. They’re poor. Who is going to feed them?’

“But they never know the whole story. These kids are being trafficked from their [homes]. They’re being lured in with big promises.”

Instead of improving their lives, she says these kids rarely get ahead. The poor only become poorer.

 

V.

Raja has the eyes of a child who misses his mother. He hasn’t seen his parents in a month.

That’s fairly recent compared to some of the older kids in Khanpur Village.

Hardier-looking boys than Raja work in windowless sweatshops down the street. They’re wiry, some with the slick hairstyles of adults framing the smooth faces of children, others sprouting the first hints of a moustache. All are illegally employed.

Many of them were brought here by their own parents, or at least with their approval. Others were trafficked, or employed by “uncles” or “brothers” who are neither uncles nor brothers but brokers who feed an industry still hungry for ultra-cheap labour.

Khanpur Village is a neighbourhood in New Delhi that is known for housing sweatshops. (CBC/Nahlah Ayed)

In the alleys of Khanpur, zari seems to be a specialty. By early morning, countless little hands are quietly planting fields’ worth of beads, shiny discs and golden thread into clothes to be worn by people who probably give little thought to who might have done such intricate work.

 

VI.

Kailash Satyarthi says raids are the best tool for the worst forms of child labour and slavery — a last resort when parents have no other means of recovering their children, or when the traffickers are powerful and connected to local police.

BBA says it has saved more than 85,000 children in raids, many of them led by Satyarthi himself.

But the successes often come at great risk. Satyarthi has been beaten up and had bones broken by employers and traffickers. He’s even received death threats. Three of his activists have been killed.

Since his Nobel win, Satyarthi is simply too recognizable to be involved on the ground anymore. So a new generation has taken over under his tutelage.

Kailash Satyarthi was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for his work in fighting child labour. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

For BBA, the raid has become something of an art.

Once they identify an area with underage labourers, local activists will monitor it for several days to pinpoint where they work and how many of them need to be rescued.

Before a raid, activists always inform local officials. When it’s time to begin, they divide up in teams that include labour officials, lawyers and a police escort.

Activists keep the exact address of a raid secret until the last possible moment, because of the real risk the employers will be tipped off — more often than not by corrupt police.

Despite all these precautions, there is no such thing as a textbook raid.

There is also no such thing as a safe raid. Danger is inherent in a process that threatens someone’s livelihood. Employers can get aggressive, even violent when someone tries to take the children away. Some of them turn out to be armed, while others call on goons who arrive ready for a fight.

Then there are angry mobs of parents or guardians, even complicit local residents, who can crowd the activists and try to snatch children back.

Sensing their own future is at risk, the children themselves may resist or, more likely, run away.

So the key to a successful raid, Dolly says repeatedly, is moving fast.

 

VII.

On Dolly’s signal, BBA’s bleary-eyed staff members get into cars and take off for the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), to meet officials coming along for the raid.

On the way, Dolly huddles with fellow activist Rakesh to get the lowdown on their first stop.

She makes a rough sketch of the neighbourhood based on his description: a busy main road, two alleys with dead ends, each with several sweatshops in different buildings. These she marks with tight little circles.

The reconnaissance by local activists suggests there could be as many as 40 children working in that little square alone. The alleys will have to be swept simultaneously, and quickly, so no one gets wind of the raid.

The activists consider the neighbourhood “sensitive.” It is home to many sweatshops whose owners aren’t shy about using force to protect their property. It is also a religiously mixed area prone to tension between Muslims and Hindus.

Activists have been killed for doing exactly what Arshad does.

When Dolly arrives at the office of the SDM of Saket District in South Delhi, the compound is buzzing with people, but the SDM himself has yet to show up. A band of monkeys making a racket in the trees overhead is a welcome if occasionally startling distraction.

Arshad Khan is waiting impatiently. As the local activist, he’s the lynchpin of the operation and arguably has the riskiest job. He will be leading the SDM, police and activists to locations he’s scouted himself.

Arshad has done nearly 400 of these raids, and is well-respected locally. But when it’s all over, he could face fallout for causing trouble for employers in his neighbourhood. Other BBA activists have been killed for doing exactly what he does.

But Arshad doesn’t shy away from confrontation. A shrewd, blue-eyed, bearded man who stands out in his green Nike ball cap and flashy rings, he’s the sort that gets things done.

And so it is with growing distaste that Arshad watches the hours scamper by as he waits to get the raid underway.

Teams assemble in the compound of the sub-divisional magistrate to coordinate the raids. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

At first, the police escort was there, but there was no sign of the SDM, Vikas Ahlawat, who had been called away to an emergency meeting. Once Ahlawat showed up, there was suddenly no sign of the police escort.

The SDM has reinstated the request, but the police officers are busy with other duties now, and will take their time in returning.

The team never raids this late. Ideally, they do it by early afternoon, so they can be out of the target neighbourhood before nightfall.

The activists leave the compound and take turns lying about in the vehicles parked outside. They grab tea from the chai-wallah and make small talk. Lunch is followed by ice cream, which is then chased with growing frustration. The adrenaline of the morning is fading away with the afternoon sun.

By 4 p.m., when the police escort finally returns, Dolly and Arshad are fuming. By this point, the idea of a raid skirting the darkness seems preposterous.

Reluctantly, everyone agrees to try the very next day. The sweatshop owners in Khanpur have unknowingly been given a temporary reprieve.

VIII.

By nine the next morning, the working day is well underway in the ceaseless churn of Khanpur Village.

Auto shops do brisk business shoulder to shoulder with street food vendors, who stand face to face with the cows that freely roam the alleys.

Raja is hunched over in his dark corner with two other workers. Except for occasional sounds from a radio, the workshops are unnaturally quiet — the movement of the needle, the pinky-push on the next bead or metallic square, is precise and soundless.

These workspaces are embedded in residential hovels, where the labourers share stairways, roofs and secrets with ordinary people.

The employees are shielded from the sun as well as from curious eyes that might glance in from the outside.

In fact, many of the workers are forbidden from going out altogether.

 

IX.

Dolly bursts into her office early again, visibly back up on adrenaline, even if she’s wearing her usual stern expression. On the wall is a picture of her boss accepting his Nobel Prize, his face beaming.

The group quickly makes its way over to the SDM office to meet up with Arshad again.

It takes a while before the SDM finally emerges from his office to address the activists, lawyers, labour officials and police officers assembled inside the compound.

“Make sure a mob doesn't form.”

He divides them into teams, then instructs the cops.

“Make sure that nobody runs away and that there are no traffic issues,” he says. “Make sure a mob doesn’t form.”

The teams get into their cars, and a loose convoy joins the deluge of Delhi traffic to make for the alleys of Khanpur.

When they arrive, Arshad and Dolly split up. He walks ahead of the SDM and leads most of the police officers, staff and interns down one alley.

Dolly, two activists and a couple of labour officials take the other. A policewoman and two lethargic colleagues are supposed to join them.

Dolly is impatient as she hovers near the target building waiting for police to catch up. The moment they walk in, she makes a sudden turn and then a beeline for the entrance. Her short, lightning-fast steps turn into a full sprint up a dark stairwell.

“You stay here,” she orders an intern on the first landing.

Up another flight, she bursts into a workshop of mostly men. At the sight of her, they scramble to put on shirts. Not finding what she’s after, she turns on her heels and leaves, confronting a group of youths in another room and ordering them to stay inside.

Back down a flight of stairs, she pushes her way into yet another room, nearly empty and covered in carpet that looks like AstroTurf. There, she spots a couple of boys awkwardly sitting around doing nothing. With a point of her finger, they become her temporary charges. Two more are found on the balcony.

Video: Child labour raid in progress

The kids all seem strangely calm — half dazed, half resigned, as though they expected this.

Despite apparent efforts at covering things up, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the room is a zari factory that employs and houses children.

A shelving unit against the wall is stacked with all the paraphernalia: bags of golden beads, a jumble of string in an array of colours. A sac on the floor is heavy with countless little square silver beads; a tiny basket hanging near the door is heavy with used toothbrushes.

Dolly fingers the garments hanging on the walls.

“These are their clothes, but they’re not here right now,” she says, urgently pulling at the tiny shirts hanging off the wall.

“Kids are working here,” she concludes.

They must have run away, says the older of the cops. It’s not what the activists want to hear.

Some of the embroidery material found in one Khanpur sweatshop. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The others interrogate the remaining boys about their ages, and it suddenly gets louder.

One youth insists he is just visiting the city — but he can’t say what he has seen so far.

Another diminutive boy with a permanently furrowed brow claims he is 18; he doesn’t look it and he can’t prove it. He is rounded up with the others and taken away by the lawyer.

“Don’t be scared, put on your shoes,” Dolly says to the youngest of the boys, her face softer now.

Even after dozens of raids, seeing the children in these conditions is the hardest part for Dolly.

“That really makes me want to hug them and tell them, ‘Everything is going to be fine,’” she reflects.

“For them this is something normal. But I have to tell them: This is not normal.”

 

X.

Downstairs, the bureaucracy kicks in, right in the middle of the alley, as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world. The labour officer starts taking the kids’ information, while a curious crowd gathers to watch.

In the other alley, Arshad’s entourage has become a spectacle. SDM Ahlawat, clad in sporty shades and languidly walking while chewing gum, cuts a figure of some authority.

Arshad Khan, in the green cap, is a local activist who leads many raids in Delhi. (BBA)

Arshad darts in and out of buildings where he finds children and adults working in near darkness, diligently planting their rows of beads on stretches of beautiful crimson cloth.

Soon, BBA interns are leading several bewildered-looking boys out of the alley. They are trailed by the SDM, police officers and a throng of local men and boys eager to see what happens next.

Among the rescued boys is Raja, visibly frightened, nervously glancing around, his eyes moist with tears.

 

XI.

Arshad stays behind and finds a few more boys toiling away in auto shops. He knows there are more children here. After all, he did the recon himself. But many of the kids seem to have vanished.

He becomes convinced word leaked out.

“100 per cent police has informed [the employers],” he says.

At the car where some of the boys have been taken, he puts the question to them.

“Did you get phone calls before this?”

It’s a tense moment.

“I was just working because I’m poor,” says one boy matter-of-factly.

 

Arshad may be wrapping up, but Dolly isn’t finished yet.

She exits the first building and suddenly breaks into a sprint down the alley to try to search out a few more workshops she knows operate behind closed doors. She doesn’t wait for the police. The other activists follow.

She runs up flights of stairs and crosses from one roof to another. Like a pinball, the dead ends always send her hurtling full speed in another direction.

On one roof, she knocks on doors.

“Is this a factory? Who is this?” she demands of one man as she peers inside a locked room through a window.

“Students,” he says calmly.

Dolly Joshi on the roof of a building during the raids in Khanpur Village. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

In an open corridor overlooking the next building, she finds an operating factory. But it’s frozen in time, as if manned by ghosts: the lights are on, the workstations prepped, sandals at the ready — but no children.

Like Arshad, Dolly is realizing some of the sweatshops may have been tipped off.

“We are late,” says the activist Rakesh.

They barge into another room. It seems like a well-established shop, a long, dirty space full of stooping young men working two at a time on a stretch of cloth. There are clothes, sandals, beads and sweaty workers everywhere, flatly lit by fluorescents.

Boys were found among the workers in this sweatshop. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The labourers seem oblivious to the activists and the torrent of questions they bring. No one bothers to stop working as some of the younger-looking employees are asked about their ages. Unconvinced by the answers, the activists march several of them away, along with a suspected employer.

In another building, Rakesh finds Aftab, a zari worker who briefly tries to pry himself away, claiming he just has to get his shoes. Rakesh won’t let go, and they leave the building walking tightly together, Rakesh’s arm wrapped firmly around Aftab’s shoulders — as though they were close friends.

The overwhelming emotion among the children is fear.

“They are scared. They’re confused. Because we are all strangers,” says Dolly. The children believe they are under arrest, especially when they spot police. Employers often warn them the law could come after them.

The overwhelming emotion among the children is fear.

“But we tell them, ‘No, we are here to rescue you,’” Dolly says.

No doubt there are children still hiding somewhere in the area, but the activists have been here too long. Concerned about the threat of physical violence, Arshad calls Dolly and tells her it is time to get out.

Everyone sprints out behind Dolly, piles into waiting cars and drives off.

In all, the Khanpur Village raid yielded 16 boys who were likely being exploited. You’d think even one liberated slave would be a success story. But the activists are not celebrating. They had hoped for many more.

In the car on the way back, Dolly is stone-faced.

In one of the other vehicles, a boy speaks up.

“If we work, then we eat. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.”

XII.

It’s a compelling argument, one that Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has heard repeatedly, not only in India but around the world.

He estimates there are 168 million full-time child labourers worldwide, ostensibly helping families survive while lowering costs for unscrupulous employers.

Eighty-five million of them, says Satyarthi, are employed in hazardous industries — including mines, quarries, glass factories and farms – working with heavy machinery, electricity and other dangers.

He notes that India has significantly reduced the number of full-time child workers in recent years. The exact figure is in dispute, but the government says it’s dropped from about 12.6 million in 2001 to 4.5 million in 2011.

Satyarthi is concerned proposed amendments to Indian child labour laws that would allow under-14s to work with family even in industries currently defined as hazardous could eliminate those gains and reverse the trend.

None of BBA’s children would have been rescued under such a law, he says.

He is adamant, however, that the problem of child labour isn’t India’s alone. It happens worldwide — even farms in the U.S. employ kids to pick fruit, he points out.

Satyarthi believes poverty is no longer an acceptable excuse for exploiting children.

Quite unlike the U.S., half the population in India lives on the equivalent of $1 a day. The average monthly wage is about $40 US. The poverty is simply crushing.

But Satyarthi believes poverty is no longer an acceptable excuse for exploiting children.

“I’ve been listening to these arguments for the last 36 years, or even before,” he says.

There is another way.

On paper, his solution is almost elegant in its simplicity. Globally, 200 million adults are jobless; studies show these are often the parents of the millions of children being put to work.

If child labourers were replaced with adults, unemployment and the associated poverty would be alleviated, and the kids could instead go to school.

“We are living in the age of [a] knowledge economy,” Satyarthi says. “If we are not able to bring children to school because they are poor and because they are child labourers … then we are depriving them [of] all their future prosperity and wealth.”

 

XIII.

Back at the SDM compound, Raja is getting a medical check. The doctor is indignant.

“See? They don’t even give them clothes,” he scoffs.

Pankaj Batra, the BBA doctor, can barely understand Raja because of his lisp, but he can see straight away that the child is fighting a cold, so he hands him some medication.

 

Raja is assessed by a doctor at the SDM compound. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

On this windy spring day, Dr. Batra seems as concerned about the boy’s clothing as he is about his health.

“What is that you’re wearing,” he says, pulling at Raja’s thin, stained plaid shirt and its wide-open collar. “You will fall ill because of the cold. Just button yourself up like this.”

He shows him.

“The button is broken,” Raja says quietly. There on his chest and hand, clear as day, someone has used a blue pen to write the number “1” with a circle drawn around it. It’s not clear why, and Raja is reluctant to discuss it.

Raja shows the doctor the number written on his skin. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

It’s clear Raja hasn’t had a chance to clean up properly in weeks. It’s also clear he has been crying.

“You will be given clothes,” says the doctor. Inspecting the boy’s scaly skin and yellowed teeth, he says, “You have to bathe every day, and wear clean clothes. You have to stay happy, OK?”

Raja and the other boys await further assessment. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Raja looks tiny and terrified waiting his turn at the long tables on the roof of the SDM building, where all the rescued children are assembled — about 30 in all after a second raid.

A lawyer assures them they’re not under arrest. But he also says that they have been exploited as child workers and that they should tell the truth. The four suspected employers the police rounded up are also there, scowling together in a corner.

Gathered at the front of the group are the labour lawyers preparing to process the children.

But first, in a signal that the most dramatic and adversarial part of the day is over, food is brought in and the boys settle down for a meal.

It is blustery up on the roof. The only protection is a canvas cover, with billowing sheets acting as the walls — providing relatively easy access onto the roof and off. It’s no surprise when a band of monkeys, lured by the waft of cooked food, try to storm the roof for their share. This touches off a mini-stampede that sends everyone running, laughing or shrieking – everyone but Arshad, who twice chases the monkeys away.

At first, each boy is identified by a tiny square of paper with a number pinned to their shirt. Despite the “1” written on his chest and his hand, Raja becomes number seven.

After seeing the doctor, the children are each photographed, then called up by labour officials and the activists to tell their story.

One of the oldest-looking boys says he’s been working for eight years.

Number two, Aftab, works in zari from eight in the morning until 11 at night.

Number six, Gulaab, was brought to Delhi by his own father. He hasn’t been paid in two months. He is 14.

Number five, Pawan, says he was working because he has no one to provide for him. Both his parents are dead. He has eight siblings, and he hasn’t been paid in a year.

One of the oldest-looking boys says he’s been working for eight years.

Some tell the activists their employers beat them. But most stay, Dolly says, with the dire hope that at some point, they will be compensated.

It is the narrative they and their destitute relatives are sold when they are recruited.

“The agents are very smart. They identify one of the families there who are poor,” Dolly says. “They’ll say, ‘OK, I’m giving you 2,000 [rupees] as advance. I’m taking your kid to Delhi. Your kid will work there. Your kid will study there… He’ll send you some money.’

“They are not free. They are… beaten up and everything. They are scolded on small mistakes.”

These employers “cheat” families, Dolly says. “Every day they cheat them.”

Most of the children rescued in raids are fearful and confused. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

 

XIV.

The process of documenting every child’s personal data and testimony takes hours. When the labour officials begin to complain, Arshad sits down and does the questioning and paperwork himself.

He doesn’t spare the officials his wrath or sarcasm in the process.

The activists believe their work makes labour officials look bad. By identifying lawbreakers and their victims, they’re essentially doing the administrators’ jobs for them. Both sides resent that.

Arshad listens attentively to the children. He pats them on the back to cajole them to speak and jibes them playfully when he thinks they’re lying.

“If you were 18 years old, then the SDM would get you married for free!” he says out loud to one of them, giving rise to hysterical laughter from some of the others.

Arshad fills out the kids’ testimony forms, dips their small thumbs on an inkpad and then onto the sheet in lieu of a signature.

Raja provides a thumbprint for his testimonial form. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Numbers 13 and 14, Muhammed and Delshad, are inseparable. They sit with their arms around each other. They insist they are not workers, that they simply got caught up in the raid by mistake.

It’s a common first statement, the activists say. But these dishevelled children seem adamant.

“We don’t work, we go to school,” says Muhammed.

A woman claiming to be his mother shows up on the roof partway through the process, and starts to make a scene.

“My son was playing downstairs in the park,” she says to Arshad. “Don’t think you can allege that my son is a zari worker out of the blue!”

Arshad: “SDM is there, go speak to him. Don’t speak to me.”

Woman: “Who brought him here?”

Arshad: “SDM.”

Woman: “If you found him working, then you can hit me with your shoe … Was this child in the zari factory? No, this boy was playing cricket.”

Arshad: “Is the factory a cricket field?”

Woman: “Yes, it is a field for poor people like us.”

Arshad: “Don’t lie.”

Woman: “If I am lying, then God will punish me. Where else will the children of the poor play? Tell me that. Where would our children go? They would be with us, and play near to where we live.”

Arshad: “You are talking too much.”

Woman: “I am not talking too much.”

Arshad: “I think it’s time to call the police.”

Woman: “Call them! Let’s both go to the police station!”

Video: Angry woman at the processing centre

 

The argument gets louder. A cop eventually intervenes and moves the woman away.

All kinds of people show up claiming to be family, and the activists say none can be believed. Even if they are the parents, they could be the ones who put their children to work — more than one-fifth of the children BBA rescues are found working with family.

Anyone making a claim for the children must be rebuffed until the kids are processed and taken to BBA’s shelter for counselling.

It’s an imperfect process. In the chaos, at least one of the suspected employers seems to have walked away.

One of the children, number three, has also gone missing. He probably found his way off the roof behind the billowing white sheets when no one was looking.

The boys who remain are remarkably well behaved and quiet, until dusk sends more activists home and brings on the mosquitoes and the restlessness. Some of the boys start to horse around. Raja eventually brightens up.

Others stare, looking very unhappy.

Long after nightfall, the agonizing process finally over, the boys are marched off to cars that will carry them to Mukhti Ashram, the BBA shelter just outside Delhi. It will be their home for the next several weeks.

As they drive off, there is still no sign of child number three. Perhaps he’s making the long journey back to his home.

The boys leave the processing centre for the shelter. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

XV.

The way to Mukhti Ashram is mostly a straight line from the southern end of Delhi to the north, hugging the Yamuna River much of the way. Once you turn off the wide highway, you run a long, mad gauntlet through a commercial district mixing trucks, tuk tuks, mopeds and cows before you get to the front gate of the shelter.

Inside is a utopian safe haven that seems otherworldly by comparison.

The Mukhti Ashram on the outskirts of New Delhi is a safe haven for children who have been rescued from illegal labour. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The boys see little of the leafy compound that exhausting first night, and probably take little notice of the aging guard dogs, the volleyball net or the small playground in front of the main building.

Only the next day do they see the sun-flooded classroom and the hall where they can watch television.

They are issued matching new T-shirts and pants. They also experience what it’s like to have three square meals a day.

Children at the BBA shelter are taught the importance of education. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

It’s a clean, orderly and peaceful contrast to the sweatshops they left behind. It is also the closest any of them is ever likely to get to a private boarding school.

Like those who find themselves at boarding school, many are resentful and don’t want to be here.

“On the first day, not everyone is quite comfortable,” says Dolly. “They are like, ‘Why have you taken us? We were earning some money. Who will pay our family and everything?’

“But when they come here, after a week you can see a big change.”

Seeing that change is Dolly’s reward.

“Every day there is a promotion for me,” is how she puts it. “It is a very satisfying job I’m doing here.”

Over several weeks, the children learn basic Hindi and English, and receive counselling. Eventually, the state’s Child Welfare Committee contacts the parents, who are asked to come and pick up their children.

Over several weeks, the children learn basic Hindi and English, and receive counselling.

The hope is that after the inculcation here, as well as the added incentive of government compensation and back pay, the children will go home and start going to school.

A few days later, Kailash Satyarthi is at the compound, receiving families who have come a long way to beg for his intervention to save their children. He promises to help.

He sits cross-legged on the grass to meet the new cohort of kids. Satyarthi has a way of conjuring boyhood in his voice and expressions that the children seem to find comforting and familiar.

“Where were you working?” he says to Delshad, who hesitates not a moment in sticking to the story he and Muhammed told the officials a few days earlier.

“I was not working. I was playing cricket. Two boys were trying to run away. They caught them and us, too.”

“And you?” Satyarthi turns to Raja, without responding to Delshad’s story. “Which factory were you working in?

Raja: “Zari.”

Satyarthi: “Do you know how to do it?”

Raja: “Yes.”

“We want all poor children to go to school and get an education. That way, even a poor kid could become a doctor or a teacher,” Satyarthi says as the boys listen.

“After studying, the kids who study will not do zari work anymore.”

Kailash Satyarthi comforts one of the children. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Satyarthi tells them that under the law, they will get compensation and back pay from their employers. He asks them to put up their hands if they’re interested. Most do.

Raja just holds his head.

Most of these kids will be picked up by their parents, but some relatives never show up. Abandoned children are eventually sent to Rajasthan, where BBA operates a shelter for its permanent charges. They often excel in school and go on to promising careers.

All the children walk away from the experience with one overarching message: School comes before everything, and it’s the best way out of poverty.

The organization says it keeps track of the children once they leave, and that most do actually end up in school. One of them now works for BBA full-time.

Satyarthi regularly tweets about their successes. Last week, he posted a photo of Mehboob, a young law student who wants to become a judge. Mehboob was freed from zari work in 2006.

Satyarthi says that just by telling their stories, the boys act as ambassadors against child labour in their home communities.

Though they only serve a fraction of the children who need help, Satyarthi defends the raids, dangerous as they are.

He says they’ve contributed to progress. He credits awareness, education, judicial interventions and the work of a growing number of organizations in India that have adopted his model.

Although he’s an optimist, Satyarthi admits the deterrence part of the formula isn’t working as well as he would like.

Satyarthi admits the deterrence part of the formula isn’t working as well as he would like.

The truth is, while some of the suspected employers taken that day from Khanpur Village will be charged, there is no guarantee they will be convicted.

“The gap between prosecution and conviction [of employers] is very, very big,” he says.

“We can do the prosecution, but when it comes to the real conviction from the judiciary, it’s a lengthy, cumbersome, expensive process.”

The state needs to do more, he says. Dolly agrees.

“See, we are an NGO. We are doing our best,” she adds. “This is a government job. The government should look after it.”

Satyarthi has the kids up on their feet, jumping up and down and chanting, “I am free! I am free!”

Among the children, you can easily spot the skeptics. But Raja is smiling more often now, even if he’s not entirely sure whether he likes it here. He says he is happy to have stopped zari.

That alone is a sea change, says Dolly.

“Initially, they are like, ‘We are working. We are stitching bags,’” she says. “Now they have dreams.”

Watch the full documentary on CBC's The National

 

Boys watch a cricket game at Mukhti Ashram. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Editing: Andre Mayer | Design and Development: Richard Grasley, Michael Leschart, CBC News Interactives