SEWAPURI, India -- As the summer sun labored toward the desiccated plains of northern India, Amarnath Kumar, a straw-thin 10-year-old boy, and three friends crept away from the red adobe hut that had been their prison for 18 months. Across the blistered soil of fallow wheat fields, the boys hurried north, avoiding other people, hurrying into the descending darkness.
Behind them, in the adobe enclosure, they left other children -- children bought or stolen from their parents, taken to toil as virtual slaves on the carpet looms of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
For 12, 14, 16 hours a day, every day of the week, every week of the year, children as young as eight sit on rough planks knotting colored yarn around the stretched cords of the loom's warp, creating the carpets that India sells around the world.
What the four boys were escaping was the explosion of such slavery in this area, the use of children to fuel the rapid growth of the carpet industry. The United States is the biggest customer for Indian carpets.
There are no reliable data on the number of children working here; indeed, carpet brokers, professional associations and judicial officers all deny that any substantial number of children are working in bondage.
But estimates by others of the children's work force in this area range from 300,000 to over a million. According to a report last month by the International Labor Organization, India has 44 million child laborers nationwide.
In most cases, the children who work in the carpet belt are purchased from their parents, or merely taken with promises of future payments. The vast majority come from the poorest parts of Bihar, the most impoverished state in India.
When parents are in fact paid, the going rate for an eight-year-old boy is 1,500 to 2,000 rupees ($50 to $66), a substantial sum for many families.
Once the deal is struck, the procurer will take 10 or 15 children at a time by bus and train to the carpet belt, usually to the town of Badhoi near here, where the loom owners come to pick up their new workers.
Typically, says Raman Kant Rai, who campaigns to help the children, a boy may work three to five years before being returned to his family, having grown too large to work in the
cramped dirt wells behind the looms.
On occasion, some boys continue to work into their late teens and twenties, at which point they are given a minimal wage and become permanent workers in the industry.
Across India, in quarries, brass smelters, glass factories and match and explosives plants, children labor in dangerous, unhealthy and oppressive conditions, often against their will, sometimes with the consent of their parents. Child labor continues despite a 1976 law prohibiting all forms of bonded or slave labor and a 1986 act banning workers under the age of 14 from a broad range of industries.
Yet each year more and more children are forced into hazardous work places, sometimes with the connivance of the authorities, often with their tacit acceptance of child labor as an unpleasant fact of life. No one has ever gone to prison in India for using $$ children as workers.
"Nowadays, migrant child labor, bonded child labor, has increased," said Mr. Rai. "The people who are engaged in this have all kinds of money and influence. In this area, there has not been a single raid by the authorities."
Only rarely, it seems, do children escape their servitude: they are too young, too far from home, too terrified. At night, many loom owners keep the children locked in dormitories, adobe buildings with simple mats on dirt floors. And during the day, while not literally chained to their looms, the stare and the lash of loom owners bond the children to the planks on which they sit.
There are no roads into the nearby village of Bibris, just a rocky path that meanders in from a faint macadam strip that heads off toward a nearby town. Cows and coal-black water buffaloes are tethered to wooden stakes outside mud-walled houses.
Here and there, faint thumpings drift from earthen buildings. Around a corner, a row of village houses opens onto a courtyard bustling with the pat of bare feet and quiet words as dozens of boys, some just seven or eight, unwind huge skeins of undyed wool.
Inside the huts, huge wooden looms, strung with plain yarn like harps, reach from the bottom of the pits to the clay-tiled roofs. And behind them, on worn planks, sit more shirtless young boys, four to a loom, poking fingers through the warp, squeezing a snippet of yarn through and back and knotting it, all in a blur of movement. The tips of their fingers are strangely pink and shiny.
"That boy," Mr. Rai said, pointing to one, "is eight. He was beaten for one year because he couldn't learn how to weave fast enough. The youngest boy I have seen here is six and a half."