Rakesh Walia hopes his journey from child labourer to boardroom executive will inspire other children toiling in India’s roadside eateries, fields and factories to break free of the shackles of poverty and despair.
In his autobiography Broken Crayons Can Still Colour, Walia, 59, gives a rare first person account of life as a child labourer in India – in his case in a workshop making bicycle parts and later in carpet weaving factories in central state of Madhya Pradesh.
Now a top executive with the telecommunications firm Matrix Cellular, Walia chronicles his life from being orphaned at six to toiling in factories before enlisting in the Indian Army and finally pursuing a career in business.
“I didn’t know how to tell my story so I began by recording my thoughts on my mobile. There were 7,000 voice recordings I transcribed to eventually write this,” Walia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
He said he felt compelled to tell his story in the hope it would inspire at least one child worker to break free and succeed.
There are an estimated 5.7 million child workers between the ages of 5 and 17 in India, according to the International Labour Organization. More than half toil on farms and over a quarter are in manufacturing on tasks such as embroidering clothes, weaving carpets and making matchsticks.
Children also work in restaurants and hotels, and as domestic workers. Walia started his young working life a servant for relatives after his parents’ death in a road accident.
From making tea each morning to running errands, washing utensils to cleaning the car, Walia writes that his strongest memory of those years was of being constantly hungry. For a few years he was allowed to go to school, but at 13 he had to drop out due to financial strains on the family.
The book describes his meeting with a broker who promised him a job in the capital Delhi. He started off making bicycle parts and then found himself at a carpet weaving factory in Madhya Pradesh. “The room where we worked was poorly lit, unbearably hot and filled with wool dust that would stay suspended in the air,” the book reads.
“I would spend endless hours weaving loose strands of wool into carpets … My hands would chaff and I developed painful blisters.” A chance encounter with an army officer gave him a purpose in life, Walia writes, describing his struggle to get an education and join the army even as he toiled in the factory.
“I would carry my books to the chowk (square) near the factory and study under the streetlight,” he wrote.
The slim book found no publishers for many years, said Walia, who now lives with his wife and son in an upmarket neighbourhood near New Delhi. “But … I was determined to tell my story,” he said. “I was even ready to print it myself and hawk copies at street corners.”
Priced at 199 Indian rupees ($3), Walia hopes the book will be accessible to children working across India. “Every child has a dream, even those forced to work in factories,” he said. “I want to tell them that sometimes dreams to come true.”
By Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ros Russell.