Nine years ago, World Vision staff discovered pervasive bonded child labor in the district of Gudiyatham in India: parents indenturing their children to moneylenders, in payment of debts as small as $20. The children rolled cigarettes, tanned hides, or made matches without freedom to go to schooland with little prospect of ever repaying loans made at ruinous interest rates.
Today, according to World Vision's extensive house-to-house surveys, child labor in the Gudiyatham district has been reduced by more than 80 percent. Children out of school can be counted in the dozens, rather than the hundreds.
Jayakumar Christian oversees this and other projects that serve the poor. One would think that all Indians would welcome such efforts. Not quite. One of Christian's jobs is to encourage the 12 World Vision staff members based in Gudiyatham, who, like many of their colleagues, have faced increasing opposition. World Vision India has developed a citizenship-training program, and a few weeks before this interview, local fundamentalists had orchestrated a police raid on one of the training sessions, threatening force and seizing the training materialsall with cameras rolling from local media who had been tipped off to the raid in advance.
Such harassment is typical of what Christians in India increasingly endure, even when, as with World Vision, the programs they offer are carefully designed to strengthen India's pluralistic democracy rather than to proselytize. The staff endured a tense negotiation with police before local officials concluded that there was nothing objectionable in World Vision's materials. But Christian was still distressed. "I was asking God, how long can we take this? The fundamentalists just walk away having done the damage. It's hard."
Christian took me to visit this project, and when we arrived, the staff was upbeat about the recent harassment. "It has actually worked to our advantage," the project director told Christian. "The community is now behind us. When we first came here, many of the villagers were very suspicious of us. But during this incident, they rallied to us. We have more support than ever now."
Indeed, from the warm welcomes that awaited Christian in Gudiyatham, you would never know that World Vision faces opposition. Nearly 20 women leaders of self-help groups presented him with a fragrant garland of flowers. A dozen schoolchildren ages 10 to 15, released from school for lunch, told him their stories of being sold to moneylenders and then released from bondageand several told him about neighboring children they are now working to release. At one village, nearly the entire population crowded under a tent to tell animated stories of how their lives had changed since they committed to educating their children rather than sending them to work. The president of one panchayat, or local council, greeted Christian warmly. Everyone we met displayed confidence and delight in the changes in their villages. It was hard to imagine that these families were recently selling their children into servitude. To an outsider, they did not seem poor. As the day went on, it became clear that they no longer seemed poor to themselves, either.
The next day, I sat down with Christian to discuss the mission principles behind this extraordinary transformation. We were back in World Vision's national office in Chennai, but it was clear that Christian's mind was very much on the people he had met the day before in Gudiyatham district.