FIROZABAD: They sat crouched for hours by a burner, inhaling toxic fumes while their deft fingers picked up and moulded the ends of glittering bangles.
No longer, though.
Dev Pratap Singh, 23, formerly a child worker in a bangle-making unit, is a clay artiste who recently delivered a TEDx talk.
Manoj Shankhwar, 24, is a BJP councillor in a municipal ward, and a noted singer and orator.
The two were rescued and rehabilitated by NGO ChildFund.
And they, in turn, seek to free children forced into labour in this bangle-making town, help them join schools and make a mark in diverse fields.
"We make every effort to ensure that children go to school and are not dragged into child labour," said Shankhwar.
It's going to be a long haul.
Years after child labour was banned, the small Uttar Pradesh town still survives on the strength of the little fingers that make bangles.
Among the children hard at work is 11-year-old Anshul, who breaks into a smile when this correspondent approaches him in one of Firozabad's many bangle-making units.
Anshul has been working with his five siblings at home every day, ever since his mother lost an arm in an accident three years ago.
They have to pay off a loan of Rs 3.5 lakh that the family had borrowed from a money lender.
The family earns around Rs 15,000-20,000 per month, most of which goes in paying the interest for the loan.
"We all want to get out, but there is nothing else left for us to do. We are trapped," said his brother, Vikas Babu, who has just appeared for his Class 12 exams.
Not much has changed since the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was enacted in 1986.
Children are still employed in hazardous units.
And the reason manufacturers prefer them is still the same.
"Sahab, inke haath chhote hain naa (they have small hands, that's why children are employed here)," said Babu, repeating the lore that small hands are better at moulding intricate bangles.
Bangle-making, experts said, was a 32-stage process.
While many of the stages are undertaken in factories, some hazardous parts, where the workers are exposed to toxic fumes over long hours, continue to take place in dingy, airless rooms in their own homes.
Babu explained that the siblings joined the ends of a bangle by soldering and shaping them into perfect circles.
"And later we make them beautiful by polishing and decorating them," he said with pride.
ChildFund India said it was committed to putting minor labourers to school.
"Our programs are holistic and integrated. Child protection does not just mean to save children from abuse. We also believe that it is a child's right to be fed and to be educated. We want to give a child a dignified life," Neelam Makhijani, country director and CEO, ChildFund India, told PTI.
The specific problem in Firozabad, she said, was that most children worked within their homes.
"But over the last few years, in Firozabad alone, we would have prevented thousands of children from getting into unorganised child labour and put them into education," she said.
The NGO, which functions with the help of corporate partnerships and individual donations, has set up several youth clubs.
It has also facilitated in setting up 16 children's clubs, where the young ones play, while they learn about the need for education and the dangers of working in bangle-making units.
"We are a part of the many youth clubs founded or facilitated by ChildFund India. Right now there are 23 youth clubs registered as a federation called 'Pragati Yuva Trust'. The clubs want children to go to school," Shankwar said.
The clubs reach out to parents and children and explain to the adults the harmful effects of bangle making on the young ones.
"We also help them in their day-to-day problems, such as in getting an Aadhaar card (which enables them to get subsidies given by the government) or enrolling in school," he said.
Makhijani said volunteers went from home to home to persuade parents to send their children to school.
"We have young people from the community who spread the word against child labour and for education," she said.
ChildFund India also provides entrepreneurship skills to youngsters to help them with alternative livelihoods.
Disha is one of the NGO's major initiatives, under which children are provided with health, educational and livelihood support.
Dev Pratap Singh, for instance, was encouraged to speak on issues, which helped him find a platform on TEDX, a forum for inspirational talks.
One of these days, perhaps, Anshul will join a school, and be pulled out of a system that forces him to work for long hours every day.
Once that happens, he will find time for his favourite films.
"Sunny Deol is my favourite. And my favourite film is Jeet. He beats up all the bad men," Anshul said the smile on his face widening.