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updated 4/5/2012 5:00:07 AM ET 2012-04-05T09:00:07

The girl’s screams were brittle and desperate. Neighbors in the suburban housing complex looked up and saw a child crying for help from an upstairs balcony. She was 13 and worked as a maid for a couple who had gone on vacation to Thailand. They had left her locked inside their apartment.

After a firefighter rescued her, the girl described a life akin to slavery, child welfare officials said. Her uncle had sold her to a job placement agency, which sold her to the couple, both doctors. The girl was paid nothing. She said the couple barely fed her and beat her if her work did not meet expectations. She said they used closed-circuit cameras to make certain she did not take extra food.

In India, reported to have more child laborers than any other country in the world, child labor and trafficking are often considered symptoms of poverty: desperately poor families sell their children for work, and some end up as prostitutes or manual laborers.

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But the case last week of the 13-year-old maid is a reminder that the exploitation of children is also a symptom of India’s rising wealth, as the country’s growing middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers, jobs often filled by children.

The Indian news media, usually a bullhorn for middle-class interests, ran outraged front-page articles. But the case was hardly unique. Last week, an 11-year-old Nepalese girl, working as a servant, said that her employer had beaten her with a rolling pin, according to the police.

Indian law offers limited safeguards and limited enforcement to protect such children, and public attitudes are usually permissive in a society where even in the lowest rungs of the middle class, families often have at least one live-in servant.

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“There is a huge, huge demand,” said Ravi Kant, a lawyer with Shakti Vahini, a nonprofit group that combats child trafficking. “The demand is so huge that the government is tending toward regulation rather than saying our children should not work but should be in school.”

The International Labor Organization has found that India has 12.6 million laborers between the ages of 5 and 14, with roughly 20 percent working as domestic help. Other groups place the figure at 45 million or higher. Unicef has said India has more child laborers than any other country in the world.

Many of these children come from India’s poorest states, either through shadowy job placement agencies or by kidnapping. In 2011, more than 32,000 children were reported missing in India, according to government crime statistics.

$40 a month
Mala Bhandari, who runs Childline, a government hot line for child workers, said India’s urbanization and the rise of two-income families were driving demand for domestic help. Children are cheaper and more pliant than adults; Ms. Bhandari said a family might pay a child servant only $40 a month, less than half the wage commonly paid to an adult, if such servants are paid at all.

Indian law deems anyone younger than 18 a minor. But the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 also creates a loophole: Children between 14 and 18 are allowed to work a maximum of six hours a day in nonhazardous work. Children younger than 14 are prohibited from working as servants, a statute that is widely flouted. Employers are required to provide daily education and document the child’s daily break hours, though most families ignore such requirements because enforcement is largely nil.

Slideshow: Indian social activist Anna Hazare (on this page)

“What happens within the four walls of a home, nobody knows,” said Ms. Bhandari, who contended that while abuse was not the norm, it was not rare.

Domestic work employs millions of people in India, most of them adults. India’s rich often have a retinue of servants, drivers and other helpers. Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire industrialist, reportedly has several hundred domestic workers in his skyscraper residence in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, with some of his servants trained by one of India’s elite hotels. Some Indian families living abroad also take a servant; last month, an Indian maid in New York won a $1.5 million judgment against an Indian diplomat and her husband for abusive treatment.

Societal attitudes toward servants are often shaped by ingrained mores about caste and class. Many servants, especially children, come from poor families among the lower Hindu castes or tribal groups, often from poor states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.

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Santosh Desai, a columnist for The Times of India, the country’s largest-circulation English-language newspaper, warned in February that India’s upper and middle class were growing flabby and indolent through their dependence on cheap household help, and that they also wrongly held “an implicit belief in possessing an intrinsic superiority, an assumed right to lord it over someone lesser.”

“As a child nobody dreams of growing up one day and driving somebody else’s children to school or washing their clothes,” he wrote.

'No fear of the law'
The middle-class families in the housing complex where the 13-year-old girl worked, in the suburb of Dwarka, professed shock over her treatment. Originally from Jharkhand, the girl is now being cared for at a government-run shelter for women. After she was rescued, she was interviewed by counselors with Shakti Vahini, the nonprofit group. They said she told them she had also been required to clean the couple’s medical clinic.

They said she also told them of other abuses: On some occasions, the couple reviewed footage from the cameras in the apartment and beat her if they found behavior that displeased them. She said she was provided with two chapatis, pieces of flat bread, as her daily meal. Earlier in the week, the police said they had not yet been able to confirm the presence of cameras in the apartment.

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Raj Mangal Prasad, a children’s welfare official in New Delhi, said the government was not staffed to carry out raids to look for illegal servants. But if it were, Mr. Prasad estimated, several thousand cases would probably be discovered throughout the capital. He estimated that one household out of 20 employed an under-age servant. “It’s plain for everyone to see,” he said.

The girl’s employers, identified by the police as Dr. Sanjay Verma and Dr. Sumita Verma, were arrested Wednesday after their return to India and remanded to police custody. The police have filed preliminary charges of violations of the Juvenile Justice Act, the Child Labor Prohibition and Regulation Act and other violations of the criminal code.

Their lawyer denied the charges at a bail hearing.

But Mr. Kant, the lawyer with Shakti Vahini, said the courts rarely issued harsh judgments in cases involving the rights of domestic help.

“There is a general feeling that we need these people,” Mr. Kant said. “Cases aren’t taken so seriously. There is no fear of the law.”

Nikhila Gill contributed reporting.

This story, "Maid’s Cries Cast Light on Child Labor in India," originally appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Photos: Indian social activist Anna Hazare

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  1. A young boy dressed as the Hindu God Krishna on the day of Janmashtami, a festival that marks Krishna's birth, makes his way to the site where anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare is in the seventh day of a hunger strike in New Delhi, India, on Monday, Aug. 22. (Kevin Frayer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A team of doctors checks the health of anti-graft activist Anna Hazare in New Delhi on Aug. 21. Hazare has adopted the tactics of liberation hero Mahatma Gandhi to push the government to adopt his version of a bill setting up an anti-corruption watchdog. (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Supporters gather at the place where Anna Hazare is carrying out his hunger strike in New Delhi on Aug. 21. Hazare said Sunday that his supporters comprise a "people's parliament" above the nation's elected assembly. Hazare's campaign has received nonstop media attention and widespread support among both wealthy and poor Indians fed up with rampant bribery and favoritism. (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Schoolchildren with Anna Hazare's name painted on their faces participate in Janmashtami celebrations at a school in Ahmadabad on Aug. 20. Janmashtami marks the birth of the Hindu God Krishna. (Ajit Solanki / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Hindu holy man shows his support at the site of Anna's Hazare's hunger strike in New Delhi on Aug. 20. Hazare said Saturday he was feeling physically weak but resolved in his demand that the government adopt his version of a bill setting up an anti-graft watchdog. (Kevin Frayer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Anna Hazare, in white, runs to avoid the rain after paying homage at Rajghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. India's most prominent anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, on truck wearing white cap, waves to the crowd during a procession to a protest venue in New Delhi on Aug. 19. Thousands of cheering supporters braved the pouring rain to greet Hazare as he arrived at the Ramlila fairground hours after he stepped out of a New Delhi jail to wild cheers of "Long live Mother India" and a shower of rose petals. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Policemen form a human chain around Anna Hazare as he arrives at Rajghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (Tsering Topgyal / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Supporters of Anna Hazare in the crowd at Ramlila fairground in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (Harish Tyagi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Anna Hazare, center, scatters petals in tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (Prakash Singh / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anna Hazare applauds as he sits in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (Mustafa Quraishi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Police clear a path for a car carrying Anna Hazare as his supporters crowd around after he left Tihar jail in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (Adnan Abidi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Anna Hazare, center in white, waves to the crowd after emerging from the gates of Tihar prison in New Delhi on Aug. 19. Nearly 2,000 people had gathered outside the jail on Friday morning to catch sight of the white-clad activist who has channeled the tactics of freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi into his fight to force the government to adopt his proposals for an anti-corruption law. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Students hold placards in support of Anna Hazare during a protest against corruption in Jammu on Aug. 19. (Channi Anand / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare rally in Ahmadnagar on Aug. 18. The renowned Indian anti-corruption crusader struck a deal with police on Thursday to hold a 15-day public hunger strike against graft, ending a standoff at a New Delhi prison in which he turned his brief detention into a sit-in protest. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Mumbai's dabbawala lunch box delivery men arrange the meals on the roadside in Mumbai, India on Aug. 18. For the first time in their 120-year history, the dabbawalas are planning to stop work on Aug. 19 in support of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. (Divyakant Solanki / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A supporter of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare displays his handcuffed hands in front of a portrait of Hazare during a protest against corruption in Hyderabad, India on Aug.18. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through cities across the country to show their support for his demand to strengthen a government reform bill, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Hazare of trying to circumvent democracy. (Mahesh Kumar A. / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Supporters of Indian social activist Anna Hazare hold torches and candles as they shout slogans against corruption during a demonstration in Kolkata on Aug. 18. (Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, left, calls on 73-year-old Anna Hazare inside the Tihar prison complex where Hazare is holding his hunger strike in New Delhi, India on Aug.17. Police arrested Hazare on Tuesday to scuttle his plans to hold a public fast and tried to free him hours later. However, Hazare refused to leave the jail unless he was granted permission to hold a public demonstration aimed at forcing lawmakers to strengthen a draft bill that would create an anti-corruption ombudsman. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Supporters of crusader Anna Hazare gather in a show of support near the India Gate memorial in New Delhi, India on Aug. 17. Hazare refused to leave the jail unless he was granted permission to hold a public demonstration. (Kevin Frayer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Indians hold cut-outs of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare and shout slogans during a protest in support of Hazare's in Ahmadabad, India on Aug. 17. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An activist of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which supports prominent anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, shouts slogan during a protest in Amritsar, India on Aug. 17. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Anna Hazare waves from a vehicle after being detained by police in New Delhi on Aug. 16. Police arrested India's leading anti-corruption campaigner on Tuesday, just hours before he was due to begin a fast to the death, as the beleaguered government cracked down on a self-styled Gandhian activist agitating for a new "freedom" struggle. (Adnan Abidi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Anna Hazare, surrounded by his supporters, prays at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi on Aug. 15. (Adnan Abidi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A boy holds an Indian national flag as he sits next to activist Anna Hazare at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Rajghat in New Delhi on Aug. 15. (Adnan Abidi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Indian social activist Anna Hazare holds a torch as he shouts slogans during a rally against corruption in Mumbai, India on Aug. 9. (Rajanish Kakade / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Students touch the feet of social activist Anna Hazare as a sign of respect as he visits one of his schools in the Ralegan Siddhi village, about 155 miles southeast of Mumbai on June 17. For millions of Indians, he is a 21st-century Mahatma Gandhi figure. (Danish Siddiqui / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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