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Child labour and untouchability in government schools

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

At a public hearing in August 2009 at the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram, balmiki children testified that they were being singled out in government schools and forced to clean classrooms and bathrooms. If such blatant discrimination can occur in an institution that is supposed to educate and nurture children, how far have we really come?

Child labour and untouchability

This column has dedicated a lot of space to the balmiki issue. I’ve often been asked: “Aren’t you going over the top with your balmiki obsession? Readers will say, ‘Oh no, not again!’ There will definitely be reader fatigue.”  

Yet, I am repeatedly confronted and shocked by new facets of the problem. 

Last year, shortly before Independence Day, the Navsarjan Trust (NST), Gujarat, an NGO that has been working for dalit rights for over 25 years, unearthed a startling new fact while conducting a census on untouchability in the state. The fact is new and startling to us -- journalists, middle class India, even members of the Navsarjan Trust. But it’s neither new nor startling to the balmiki community for whom untouchability is the norm, not the exception. 

Gujarat is considered one of the more progressive states in India. So, one would expect the ban on child labour to be strictly enforced there, right? Wrong. NST discovered that balmiki children were singled out in government schools and forced to sweep and mop classrooms and clean bathrooms. That’s a new one. Forced child labour in government schools! And free, or bonded labour, at that!   

Navsarjan Trust documented the evidence of 1,000 balmiki children and decided to take the children to the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram, the epicentre of years of debates on untouchability. The irony here is unmistakable. 

And so, on August 17, 2009, 1,000 balmiki children marched to the ashram in Ahmedabad, shouting catchy slogans. They were in high spirits as they tumbled out of buses, lorries and jeeps, excited at their day out in the capital. They came from all corners of Gujarat. From Narendra Modi’s hotspot of Gandhinagar to the remote tribal Panchmahals. From Gandhiji’s Porbandar on the western coast to the Dangs on the southern tip. From north, south, east, west and central Gujarat, the children arrived like the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s army, marching solemnly, proudly sporting brand new Gandhi caps and shiny newly-distributed school satchels, from the bus stand to Sabarmati Ashram. Here, they were welcomed and garlanded with hand-woven cotton thread malas by elderly Gandhian leaders. 

These were the children of safai karmacharis. Balmiki kids accustomed to watching their parents sweep public streets and private homes, clean unbelievably filthy toilets, drag away rotting animal carcasses, dive without protective gear into manholes and overflowing sewage pits, obey orders to do the worst possible menial tasks with minimal payment. For centuries, these people have been forced to obey the dominant caste diktats. There is absolutely no choice, for this community is at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy.  

The children follow early in their parents’ footsteps. Society grooms them to take over traditional roles, to step into their parents’ shoes. At Sabarmati Ashram, groups of balmiki children went up to the podium, district by district, to talk about their experiences. They were matter-of–fact. They did not move into victim mode; they merely stated the facts. For them, this was just how life was. They were neither asking for, nor seeking sympathy. They have no expectations from our society. 

Pooja studies in Class V. When asked about untouchability in school, she explains: “Achut to maante (we are considered ‘untouchable’); we are not allowed to take water from the drinking water matka (pot). The kids from the dominant caste blow air and do ‘phoo phoo’ to cleanse themselves if we touch them by mistake. Or they sprinkle water on places we touch. They think we pollute them.”  

“The teachers don’t want to handle our homework books so they are never corrected. I clean urinals and toilets.” “Why do you clean them?” one of the panellists asks. The question confuses her. She looks bewildered. “Why? I have to. Because the teacher tells us to do it. If we disobey they will beat us. We are bhangis. No one in school chooses to be friends with us. They say: “Hey bhangi, dur bes (sit far away from us).”  

“I clean toilets in school,” announces Prakash from Mohua taluka, Kheda district. Prakash is a bright lad studying in Class VII.  “Why do you do it?” the jury asks him. He looks puzzled. To him it’s a stupid question. “Because the teacher tells me to do it.”

“Why do you obey him?” An even stupider question. “Because I’ll get a beating if I don’t obey my teachers.” “What do you want to be when you grow up?” someone asks. “A teacher.” “Why a teacher?” “Because I want a life of dignity,” Prakash responds shyly. 

Aarti is from Pathan district. She studies in the girls’ high school, in Class VII. “I clean the classroom three times a week, and the toilets three times a week.” “Why do you do it?”  “Because the principal tells us to do it,” she replies. “How does he know you are a balmiki,” a panellist asks. “From my name. If we say we don’t want to clean toilets, they beat us. Three balmiki girls, Sangeeta, Raksha and Daksha, were beaten because they didn’t want to clean the toilets.”  

In most cases, the teacher or principal orders: “All bhangi children stand up.” They are then allotted their toilet-cleaning duties and given a sweeping/mopping roster for the week. 

Although the situation has shocked many people, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg. These children belong to a vibrant Gujarat. Balmiki children in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, indeed in several Indian states, are worse off. Child labour laws are flouted with impunity all over the country, but with a specially humiliating twist with regard to balmiki children. All child labour is abhorrent and exploitative, but balmiki children are singled out, isolated and taunted in front of their peers. This persistent humiliation and abuse is the single largest reason for the high drop-out rate among balmiki children.   

Most safai karmachari children help their parents, putting in a full morning’s work before they go to school. Many opt for afternoon school in order to help their mothers during the early morning shift. And all of them work for a pittance, cleaning manure pits, dragging away dead animals, helping their parents sweep the streets, mop floors in private homes, clear garbage, clean toilets. At school, they are forced to do this for free.  

In the evenings, the children accompany their mothers to collect leftovers from the homes the women work in. It’s known as baasi, or stale food. Often, it’s food taken off a dirty plate, sometimes half-eaten. Balmikis do not even enjoy the luxury of refusing scraps or waste food, however revolting it may be. Mulk Raj Anand describes it graphically in his 1935 book Untouchable.  

Seven decades on, the situation remains exactly the same -- unbelievably degrading, a disgrace to the human race. 

It’s not just in school that free labour is demanded; balmiki children are bullied and forced to provide free labour in their villages too. If the upper-caste elders, or indeed any dominant caste person, orders them to do a job, they cannot refuse. If the malik is kindly disposed, he may give the child Rs 10; Rs 20 if he’s magnanimous. But the caste system brooks no dispute. “If they don’t do these jobs, who will?” is the genuinely astonished dominant caste refrain in many villages. Feudal India has not changed in spite of independence, an egalitarian Constitution, and 60 years of laws against untouchability.  

The ‘public hearings’, covered by major Gujarati newspapers and TV channels, were held before a panel comprising Justice R A Mehta, former acting chief justice of Gujarat, Amrut Modi, secretary of Sabarmati Ashram, Ishwarbhai Patel, a former member of the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis, Professor Ghanshyam Shah, Gujarati political scientist, and Martin Macwan, dalit leader and founder of Navsarjan Trust. 

Manjula Pradeep, Director, Navsarjan Trust, informed the audience that the study had been conducted in 12 districts of Gujarat with the objective of highlighting the children’s plight and bringing it to the attention of the government, the public and the courts. She emphasised the importance of evidence coming straight from the children. “We want to stop untouchability and discrimination faced by dalit children in schools. Even today, there are people who believe there is nothing wrong with dalit children being forced to clean toilets in their schools. We believe this public hearing will help highlight the untouchability the children face on a daily basis in their schools, and hopefully put an end to discrimination and make life easier for them.” 

The only way to stop the victimisation is if stringent action is initiated against the perpetrators. According to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, offenders can be jailed for mistreating dalit children. Unless teachers and principals are jailed under this Act, they will continue to beat, bully, stigmatise and ostracise balmiki and other dalit children.    

Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan Trust, said wryly: “This is a situation that cries out for justice, yet this will never make it to the headlines.” Professor Ghanshyam Shah, a panellist at the camp, said, “The courts should take up the children’s statements on a suo motu basis”. Justice Mehta agreed that this was “definitely a case for the Gujarat courts”.  

So, will the heads of errant officials roll? Will the courts and the government take any action? Although we have a Safai Karmachari Commission, not to mention an entire ministry for SC/ST welfare, 60-plus years after Independence our children are humiliated inside the very institutions that are supposed to educate and nurture them.    

Infochange News & Features, March 2010