Ending child labour ‘depends on demand side’ says Indian NGO


The third article in our three-part series on Flanders’ involvement in ending child labour in India’s natural stone industry, we talk to an Indian NGO, which credits the work of Flanders’ importers and government initiatives for having a major impact

On the ground in Budhpura

When Flemish, Dutch and British businesses and NGOs launched the initiative No Child Left Behind, working to end child labour in India’s stone industry, they knew they could do little without local support. That meant calling on Aravali, a government agency dedicated to socio-economic development in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Today Varun Sharma of Aravali (pictured, centre) is involved in “Paving the way for a sustainable natural stone industry in India”, a project launched by the government of Flanders and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Flanders’ ILO Trust Fund has provided €340,000 in seed money to expand the project Aravali has spent many years overseeing.

“We believe in working on the ground to change the lives of our workers,” says Sharma, who has seen big changes in labour conditions in the natural stone sector in Budhpura, a group of villages in the south of Rajasthan. When No Child Left Behind launched in 2013, he says, “I saw children working in front of every house. There were 300 children registered in school but only three there.”

Co-operation is key

No Child Left Behind is a co-operation among Dutch NGOs Arisa and Stop Child Labour and natural stone importers in Flanders and the UK. West Flanders firm Beltrami and its online spin-off Stoneasy have been instrumental in liasoning with Aravali. General Manager Bram Callewier has been to India many times to take part in meetings and to see the situation with his own eyes.

Flanders’ and the Netherlands’ interest in the poor labour conditions in the natural stone industry are significant: Much of the massive volumes of cobblestones and paving stones bought and sold here come straight out of Budhpura.

“Every stakeholder has a role to play,” explains Sharma. “People in Belgium can put pressure on the Indian suppliers to follow certain practices. At the same time, we are pressuring the government here to increase outreach programmes and improve the quality of education.”

Half of the team are women, and some of them worked in the stone industry when they were children

- Varun Sharma

While child labour elicits the most emotional responses, certainly from the west, Aravali knew that the problems in Budhpura’s quarries went far beyond that. Working conditions are horrendous for everyone mining and shaping sandstone and limestone and granite.

Basic worker safety standards are slim to none in the stone quarries, and because of the lack of first aid and medical care, minor injuries can have big consequences. In the nine villages that make up Budhpura, 40% are women-led because the men die in their 40s from silicosis pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust.

Six years of No Child Left Behind has led to considerable changes, says Sharma. The NGO Manjari set themselves up in Budhpura, reporting to and receiving training from Aravali. All the Manjari team members are from the local community, which Sharma says is crucial.

“Their education and background in organising might not be strong, but we are building their capacity,” he says. “What’s important is that they belong to the town. And half of the team members are women; some of them worked in the stone industry when they were children. So they can easily connect with the community.”

Resource centre

In six years’ time, Manjari has established first-aid training, arranged accident insurance for quarry workers, opened several schools and stopped 90% of children under the age of 14 from working. It has created women’s groups to discuss hygiene and child marriage, as well as training programmes in sewing and electrical work to offer young people alternative job skills.

Manjari’s Livelihood Resource Centre for Natural Stone Providers is located right inside one of Budhpura’s quarries. “It’s a place where workers can go with issues or problems to ask for help.”

Almost all of Budhpura’s children are now in school, says Sharma. “For some of these families it’s the first time anyone has ever gone to school. We have established 19 self-help groups, and a women’s collective has saved 900,000 rupees [€11,500] in the last two years. So they have their own savings; they feel more confident.”

Workers in the other villages are beginning to be more aware of their rights. It’s a ripple effect

- Varun Sharma

The stone industry was, naturally, resistant to Manjari’s presence. Organising began in the families and the schools, not in the quarries themselves. “For the first two years, they just watched us,” says Sharma, “their people were always hovering around. Why are you here? What is your purpose? After two years, they started working with us, but it took another year to allow us into their yards.”

What helped turn it around was the accident insurance, provided to 2,500 workers at no cost to the quarries. As workers began to receive medical care and time off for injuries, they began to return to work faster and healthier.

Quarry owners and the local politicians who support them “are very powerful people,” notes Sharma, “and our organisers all come from the villages, and half of them are women. But our consistent efforts and the support we have received from the west has given us authority.”


No Child Left Behind is certainly not the first instigators of programmes designed to reform the natural stone industry in India. But it is one of the most successful. Sharma credits the multi-stakeholder structure.

The presence of Flemish stone importer Callewier, for instance, had a great impact, he says. “Let me tell you, when I first met with Bram, it was pretty difficult to convince him that we could do something in this town. But we could not implement this in isolation. And one of the keys of our success has been Bram’s involvement in this entire project.”

Two years back, he says, Aravali organised a big event in partnership with a human rights commission. “I sent an invitation to Bram. The event was two days before Christmas. But Bram came.”

The sustainability of Budhpura’s ever-growing improvements “largely depends on the demand side,” says Sharma. That’s why he’s happy that Flanders’ ILO Trust Fund has now earmarked funding to expand the Budhpura project into other parts of Rajasthan.

“Aravali can play a very important role in the ILO project that is supported by the Flemish government.” In villages outside of Budhpura, he says, “workers are beginning to be more aware of their rights. It’s a ripple effect.”

While Flanders’ ILO Trust Fund is being put to work on the ground in India, another initiative, TruStone, is being implemented right here. Signed this week by the Flemish and Dutch governments, as well as natural stone importers and NGOs, TruStone will work to ensure that cobblestone, tiles and other natural stone products are sourced fairly from India.

This is the final article in a three-part series on Flanders’ involvement in the natural stone industry. Part 1 looks at Flemish stone importer Bram Callewier’s pioneering efforts, while part 2 focuses on Flanders’ ILO Trust Fund and the TruStone covenant

Photos: ©ElineWijnen/Aravali (top), courtesy No Child Left Behind (centre & above)