Leaving the salt pans to go to school

Children rescued from labour and given an education have seen a dramatic change in their lives. Usha Rai reports after hearing the rescued children speak at the recent National Convention on Right to Education and Abolition of Child Labour

Children rescued from labour

The India shining myth is repeatedly broken when we see the large number of children, some as young as five and six years, working in dhabas, tea shops, agricultural fields and umpteen other jobs to put food into their stomachs and maybe even support an aged grandmother or an alcoholic father who cannot or does not want to work. India has the highest number of child labourers in the world.

In fact the Census shows that the number of child labourers in the country increased from 11.3 million in 1991 to 12.6 million in 2001. What is also worrying is that 75 million children are not counted as either going to school or work. These 'nowhere children' comprise mainly girls engaged in work that does not even figure as child labour. This includes fetching water, fuelwood and looking after siblings.

At a recent National Convention on Right to Education and Abolition of Child Labour, organised by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), ILO and Unicef, right to education was seen as non-negotiable and any child out of school was considered a working child. There was a strong demand that the Right to Education Bill should be cleared so that greater linkages can be established between this basic right and abolition of child labour. Even as Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury said the distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous work had to go, child rights activists pointed out that "it was hazardous for children to be out of the protective environment of school".

There is an explosive demand for education among the poor today. Parents, even among the poorest, are not only capable of sending their children to formal day schools but are willing to do so, says the position paper of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. This has been amply demonstrated in Andhra Pradesh where thanks to the pioneering work of the non-profit MV Foundation, 1,500 villages have been declared free of child labour. Every child in these villages goes to school, the village panchayats monitor their attendance and the parents are proud of their children. In fact the parents of these erstwhile child labourers are making enormous sacrifices to see that education of their children is not disrupted until they finish at least class 10. They talk with pride about the transformation of their child from a child labourer to a student.

Some 200 children participated in the Delhi convention and a large number of them were children who had been pulled out of the workforce and were today in schools and colleges. They came and narrated their stories of breaking the shackles of child labour and demonstrated that with some 4,000 non-government organisations of the country networking under the Campaign Against Child Labour to bring back dignity and joy to their lives, it is possible today to rebuild the lives of these children through education.

Children who had worked in the salt pans of the Rann of Kutch, street children from Delhi, children working in the zari units of Mumbai, migrant children working in brick kilns and bangle-making factories spoke of their liberation from work. While most of those who came to Delhi are still studying in schools and colleges, some of them have become activists for children's rights and are working with NGOs.

The chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Shantha Sinha, firmly believes that if we repose faith in the poor, they are capable of partnering in the endeavour to abolish child labour and overcome the poverty trap for future generations.

Take the case of Swarupa who was rescued from working in the cotton fields of Ranga Reddy district of Andhra Pradesh by MV Foundation when she was about 14 years. She had worked two years in the cotton fields and was desperate for a better life. When she heard of the MV Foundation's bridge course that would enable her to get into school, she ran away from her employer and joined the course. Initially her parents were upset because they had taken an advance from her employer but today they are extremely happy because she has completed her education and is working for the telecommunication company, IDEA.

Education has transformed Swarupa's life. She would start cross pollination of cottonseeds at 7 am and work under the hot sun till 7 pm. She was allowed just two breaks in these 12 hours, one for lunch and the other for dinner, and was paid a pittance of Rs 15. Identifying flowers ready for pollination and cross pollination was a tedious task, needing great concentration. She was also exposed to harmful chemicals sprayed on hybrid cottonseeds making her vulnerable to various ailments. Today Swarupa is a role model in her village, inspiring young girls to pursue education.

There are umpteen others like Swarupa. Pankaj, an articulate youngster with proven acting skills, aims to become a professional actor after graduation. Pankaj lives in the Salaam Balak Trust premises in Delhi and teaches acting to the younger children there. He is currently doing his first year of BA in History, Political Science, English and Hindi.

Pankaj went through a traumatic childhood till he came to the Salaam Balak Trust. His father who made a living in Delhi as a kabadiwala (people who sell items disposed of by homes and shops), would drink a lot and misbehave with his mother so she returned to her maternal home in Kanpur. Pankaj was just six or seven then. Unable to care for him, his father took him to a place called Ginjhak, near Kanpur, where he was left in a dhaba (roadside eatery). There, he served food to clients, cleaned tables, washed dishes and ran errands like bringing bottles of liquor, cigarettes and paan or beetlenut. He also enticed clients to frequent the dhaba, being paid one rupee for every client he brought. Though Pankaj worked at the dhaba for six months he never got any money, just food and a place to sleep at night.

Meanwhile Pankaj's elder brother Amit, who had run away from home, found shelter with the Salaam Balak Trust in Delhi and their mother tried to persuade Pankaj to join his brother at the Trust. But another year passed before he could join Amit. From the dhaba he moved with his parents to Firozabad where his parents sent him to work in a bangle-making factory. He worked in the factory from 8 am to 6 pm, after which he prepared and sold bhelpuri on a cart till 11 pm. The money he earned was never enough for the family's needs. He found he had neither money nor clothes and eventually decided to run away to join his brother in Delhi. On reaching Delhi he spent a day or two at the railway station till he found the Salaam Balak Trust and his brother, after which his life changed. Pankaj will have to leave the protection of the Trust when he is 18 but is confident of finding his way in life along with his friends at the home.

Fourteen-year-old Mayamore is an assured and confident tribal girl from Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, with her goal set firmly on becoming a school teacher. Her story can be held up as an example that it is possible for poor and socially backward children to go to school and turn their lives around.

Mayamore had studied till class 4 in her village in Khandwa when she had to give up school. She looked after her younger siblings and also earned Rs 1,500-1,600 a month by grazing cattle for more affluent families. She moved to another village with her family when there were floods in Khandwa. There, she was identified by the MV Foundation during a village survey of children who were out of school. Her parents were persuaded to send her to school. Since she had already been going to school earlier, there was not too much resistance even though the family income was affected without her earnings from cattle grazing. Mayamore attended a bridge course for nine months where her academic level was upgraded for admission to class 6 in the Kasturba Gandhi Bal Vidyalaya (KGBV).

Highly motivated and with obvious leadership qualities, Mayamore went back to her village and persuaded the parents of six other girls like herself to send them to school. Today, there is a cohesive group of tribal girls accessing education and other skills at the KGBV. Till they got enrolled in the KGBV, the girls were engaged in collection of tendu leaf, mohua and firewood and sometimes walked 10-15 km to sell the fuelwood. Older girls in the village were often forced to migrate to Delhi to work as domestic help. Mayamore says, "Though there are various special government schemes, we are not able to access them." Mayamore is proud that in class 5 she secured 85% marks, bettering it in class 6 with a score of 88%. "We are taught twice a day and get tuitions for the subjects in which we are weak," she says. Her next challenge is to secure government or private support to complete her schooling after she leaves the KGBV.

In the 5,000 sq km Rann of Kutch in Gujarat that produces salt for the rest of the country, Nayna Viramgaumi, 15, was one of the many children working at the salt pans with their families. Schools here were as remote as freshwater. As soon as the monsoons ended, Nayna would migrate with her family from their home in Himmatpura village of Patdi block in Surendranagar district to the salt pans to work as agariyas, as the salt workers are called. Nayna recalls that even as a toddler, blisters on her hands and feet from working in the salt pans were common. She spent about eight months in a year with her two siblings in the Little Rann of Kutch where the family camped in a hut so that they could work in the salt pans.

It was only after April 1995 when the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) undertook a march in the region and carried out a survey of the out of school children that the community demanded schools in the area. Nayna joined primary school the following year. Her school was run by Ganatar, an NGO that is part of the network of CACL. Ganatar works in three districts of Gujarat to eradicate child labour and promote the right to education. Nayna studied up to class 7 in one of the supplementary Rann Schools that Ganatar operates for migrant children at the workplace itself. "Even then, I would wake up early and go with other agariyas to the salt pans, then leave for school. In the half-hour school break also I would go back to the salt pans and help my parents," recalls Nayna.

However, with no secondary school in the area Nayna returned to work in the salt pans for two years till Ganatar enrolled her in a residential school, Bhanatar Shala, in Surendranagar. The 15-year-old is now in class 9 in the mainstream Gijubhai Bal Academy HSBC Campus in Patadi, Surendranagar, and in addition to studies she is also learning tailoring, organic farming and animal husbandry. Today she is an articulate and confident teenager.

Bachhan Kumar still gets teary-eyed when he recalls his incarceration in a zari (embroidery) making unit in Dharavi in Mumbai. The 15-year-old from Chandpatti village in Sitamarhi district of Bihar has five siblings. In 2004 his father, disabled and unemployed, decided to send him to Mumbai with Anand Ram, an agent for the zari factory who visited the village and picked up several boys by promising the parents good money as the children's salary. There were other boys too at the factory where Bachhan Kumar stayed for 20 months.

He was paid Rs 50 a week, sleeping and eating on the same premises where the work was carried out in the daytime. The boys were apprenticed to the tailors who taught them embroidery. "It was very useful for the tailors to have us there to help them as they had fixed work timings and would leave for home after eight hours. We would then work till late in the night carrying out the work they assigned us," says Bachhan. "We were promised by the factory's general manager that our salary would be increased after we completed our apprenticeship but they did not tell us how long that would be." Bacchan says they were beaten when they asked for more money. The boys were never allowed to go out alone; an adult always accompanied them even if they went out on some errand for the factory. They were occasionally allowed to call their families in the village and he says he never heard of any money being sent to his father by Anand Ram.

Bachhan was rescued in a police raid in January 2006. The boy stayed for a few days at the police station after which he spent two months in a remand home in the city and then went to a remand home in Patna from where he was taken to Pratham, a local NGO. He was enrolled in class 5 in a residential bridge course at Pratham's Awasiya Gyaanshala in Sitamarhi. Here, Bachhan brushed up on the studies he had quit midway when he left the village. Within two years he has progressed to class 11 and is also an active kabaddi and kho-kho player.

Children from across the country who have succeeded in coming out of the child labour trap are demanding equity and quality in education. The lack of high schools in villages, adequate number of teachers (in Orissa 40,000 posts of teachers need to be filled) and basic facilities like school furniture, drinking water and toilets are being raised. Voicing concern for their less fortunate brethren, child representatives are asking "what is our future without education? Who will employ us?"

(Usha Rai is a senior development journalist based in New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009