In a village in Odisha, victims of child labour are learning to lead a new life
SINU SAHA HAS no clue how old she is. But she can spell her name. She’s in Class 4, so maybe she’s nine. When she got here two years ago, she’d never known what school was. Or even the care of parents. She was working at a sweet shop somewhere, as her elder brother asked her to, washing dishes in terror of letting a glass slip out of her tiny hands. “Burra lagta thha (I used to feel bad),” she says of her earlier life, going sullen on being asked what a smashed glass meant. The brother worked at the same outlet, but wasn’t there when the police came to get her. She has a new life now at Bisoi Government Nodal Upper Primary School, one she says she likes. Hostel food is good.
All of 13, Gudu Patra, a former dishwasher at Anand Lassi Stall near the bus stand of Baripada, a town about 50 km from this village of Bisoi and 265 km from Bhubaneswar in Odisha’s district of Mayurbhanj, is clearer about the penalty he had to pay. For each dish broken, the maalik would cut Rs 15 from his monthly pay of Rs 1,500. It was a 6 am to 10 pm job, seven days a week. “Haath uthhaate thhe.” Such beatings, he told himself, he’d have to bear if the debt for his mother’s “pet ka operation” had to be repaid after his father ran away, leaving them in the lurch—and him with no option but to quit school. They needed the money sorely, and he couldn’t stop crying when the police took him away and held him for a week. He was afraid he’d be locked up.
In contrast, Ajay Kumar Patra, also 13, was only too glad that ‘sir’ came looking for him after he dropped out of his village school in Rairungpur. Under his chachaji’s charge, he was in no position to contest what he was given to believe fate had lined up for him: a life of taking cows out to graze. With five of them to watch over, it had its hazards: a single cow straying off would bring on his uncle’s wrath. “Jab nahin pakad paata thha,” he says, with the hint of a recessed flinch, “Bahut tension hoti thhi.” A teacher of his got him here to Bisoi, a good distance away from their village. Some six months ago, however, his uncle came stomping in and took him back to their hut. But he didn’t like it there and insisted on returning. So here he is, another resident of the Urban Deprive Hostel (as its signboard says), which, tucked behind the classes block of the school campus, offers refuge to boys like him.
No less assertive is SK Sadam Hussain, 14, who insists on the initials before his first name—spelt with a single ‘d’, he points out. He used to work as a cycle repair boy for a monthly sum of Rs 1,500 that his mother, sister and he depended on, and for a maalik who knew just how badly they needed the cash. “Maarta thha, gaali deta thha (He’d hit me, abuse me).” Once he was brought here, he says, his mother spent long hours crying, awaiting his return while she scrounged to keep the house going. In desperation, she came to fight the school, demanding her boy’s release. It was he who explained to her why he was so keen to stay. His mother’s doing fine now, he says; and he, splendidly well. For one, he’s made friends. He has a smart uniform, gets food he relishes, enjoys campus activity, and loves the movies they’re shown and the stories that ‘sir log’ tell them. Above all, he has an ambition. He wants to start a factory to make these bright plastic chairs he sees around. Or a cycle company. Is he aware of his famous namesake? “Jee,” he nods. He was the president of Iraq, he says, as he learnt here in school. It’s all he knows of the man.
It was a ‘rescue team’ of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan that got Sadam here, a group led by the local tehsildar, block development officer, resource centre officer and police officials. As with Sinu, Gudu and Ajay, he was taken into custody as part of a wider round- up conducted in 2014 under Mu Bi Padhibi (‘I will study too’), an initiative of Mayurbhanj’s district magistrate that aims not only to fully ‘implement’ the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) promise of ‘free and compulsory’ schooling for all 6-14-year-olds, but also ensure that child labour is done away with once and for all.
When I could not catch hold of a runaway cow I had taken for grazing, I would be under extreme tension
Today, every fifth student of this residential school, which has about 500 pupils in all, is a ‘rescued child’—and happily so, at that. As Gudu, a dance hero for other kids, puts it, “Mann lag gaya (My heart is settled).” Others affirm as much. The boys’ hostel is modest, as its name forewarns. Beds are a recent luxury, but it has bulbs, fans, even electricity. Signs of recreation can be spotted all around.
The kids appear cheerful and well adjusted. The ideal way to do this, says Principal Manoranjan Giri, is to start them off with fun activities—art, drama, games and so on—in the first three months of the post-rescue ‘conditioning’ phase. It puts them at ease and gets them to open up, bit by bit. Clay modelling, bamboo craft and origami work very well, especially among Tribal kids, as many are. Another big draw is the diet on offer. It is better than any midday meal scheme, Giri claims. “Non-veg, like Tribals have, fast food… we give them things they like,” he says. “If they enjoy school, it’s much easier to counsel parents on the value of education.”
Once ‘conditioned’ to adapt, special remedial classes take up the task of getting them up to scratch on the alphabet, arithmetic, worksheets and so on. Half of them have caught up with their class in these two years, claims Giri. “Ajay Patra topped Class 6.” Others have had other confidence boosters, such as being asked to play judge for contests among regular kids. For them to appreciate how smartly they are turning out, the 2014 round-ups were even shown ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of themselves. It left them rubbing their eyes.
Being boarders aids their assimilation. “We are involved with their lives,” says Giri. “They need love and affection,” adds Babita Saha, a zestful teacher whose popularity with the children is apparent in how little they squirm in her arms as she hugs them. “They mustn’t feel they’re any different,” she explains. At first, they naturally felt left out, but what’s been found to help them mingle with the rest is sports. “Khel kood se bonding hoti hai,” she says, pleased to see the rehab kids interact more and more with others. Their manners have also got reformed, by and by. Cuss words, for example, have been given up even by kids rescued from liquor units and brick kilns. “Those who were singing Lungi Dance are now singing Hum Honge Kaamyaab,” she exults.
Among the impressed is Mamata Mayee Biswal, a district child protection officer of the Government. “At first,” she says, “child labour children could not even sit properly.” Other schools in Mayurbhanj are doing a fairly good job of it too, she reports.
IN A COUNTRY where reality has a knack of making a laughing stock of records, India’s official figure of 98 per cent school enrolment (of children aged 6-14) does not impress anyone who cares to take a closer look. While the midday meal served in sarkari schools has certainly got millions of more parents sending their kids, drop-outs remain high and skill acquisition levels low. Poverty is poverty, after all, and it’s at the tail-ends that the worst dangers lurk, says Ranjit Prakash of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO). India finally seems set to ratify the ILO Convention on Child Labour, he says, now that Parliament has amended the Child Labour Act of 1986 to impose a general ban on under-14s being put to work by employers (earlier, only their ‘hazardous’ employment was outlawed, a bar that now applies to those in the 14-18 age bracket), and this ought to trigger a nationwide crackdown on the practice. But then, it takes only a cursory tour of the countryside to see how stiff a challenge it is. “There’s poverty, there’s culture, there’s a caste-based social hierarchy: the son of a cobbler thinks, ‘This is my work’,” he sighs, “You often have to convince parents to send children to school, and I’ve interacted with 10,000 of them in my fieldwork across India. Many need their children to help them get by.”
To Prakash, Mayurbhanj is a beacon of hope. “It shows that if a DM is committed, it can be done,” he says, “And it’s not just a personal mission for him, he has institutionalised it.” This explains why ILO is not just assisting the effort, but also taking note of every detail in the hope that Mu Bi Padhibi is taken all India.
The Census of 2011 found nearly 4.4 million workers in the 5-14 age group. This is an outright shame, says Collector and District Magistrate Rajesh Prabhakar Patil, 40, an IAS officer who seems to mean it in a way only have-nots can fully grasp. “I myself am a product of education,” he says, yielding only a bare outline of his own story. Born to extreme poverty in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, he struggled to study his way up, a struggle he speaks of in his book, Maa, Main Collector Ban Gaya.
If even today, in the 21st century, lakhs of children in India are engaged in child labour, it is a matter of shame
In power, what got him worked up was the gap between the RTE’s goals and its actual efficacy. “The Act talks about parents being responsible, teachers being responsible, but there is no accountability [specified].” Within a year of being posted here in 2012, he’d enthused a cross-section of people in positions of influence across the district to confront this problem. And then, with opinion on his side, he mobilised an array of departments to serve the cause of getting every child into school. “Unless these things are done in mission mode,” he says, “they do not happen.”
Launched on 1 April 2013, the exercise needed no extra budgetary allocation. “We tried to converge existing programmes and judiciously used funds from [assorted schemes].” Among others, the departments of Labour, Health, Women and Child, SC/ST and Panchayati Raj chipped in. Local leaders, teachers and officials were roped in, data collected, raids undertaken, rehab facilities set up, and problems addressed. When teachers complained they couldn’t reach Gudgudiya, a far-flung village out in a dense forest, the administration built a ‘barrack’ there for them to stay.
As claimed, 70,646 children have been admitted to various schools—of which the district has about 4,000—and 1,133 rehabilitated since Mu Bi Padhibi began. The effort now is to put protocols in place, a sort of user’s manual for wider use. “If a child is identified as ‘labour’, who will do what? If parents migrate, then what? What is the role of each stakeholder?” says Patil. “We want to make it a sustainable intervention.”
Isn’t there, though, a coercive aspect to it? What if Tribals, as most of these kids are, see this as a dominant culture being thrust upon them? “Twenty years ago, this was perhaps an issue,” replies Patil, “Today, there is no Tribal family that doesn’t feel their children should be educated.” They want to preserve their culture and language, he admits, but argues they also want all that modernity has to offer. “Mass media is accessible to them.” What’s more, the diversity of the region is enough to boggle the best of intentions. The district has 52 tribes, Santhal and Ho being the biggest, each with a distinct tongue. “Is a language being thrust on them?” he asks, waxing rhetorical, “In our case, wasn’t it English?”
Apathy towards Tribals in need, as the recent corpse scandal of Kalahandi illustrates, is indeed far more troubling. In Baripada, where we stay for the night, it’s difficult not to wonder if the closeby river of Sabarnarekha got its name as a marker of ‘caste’ territory apart from the ‘Tribal belt’ beyond. That this divide has been sharp for centuries is obvious. In some ways, it still is. Mayurbhanj, though, hasn’t had much ethnic tension. Since 2008, the 10,400 sq km district has also been free of Maoist violence.
Education, of course, is expected to win the day.
Is Patil, then, a champion of the paternal state? “In principle, I don’t believe in that, but the state does sometimes need to intervene when children are involved, especially in sectors like this.”
“No development,” he adds, “can happen without education.” On this, the district magistrate is emphatic.
ACROSS THE COUNTRY, meanwhile, there’s a mass shift away from government schools to private ones, and this trend has been gaining force despite more and more being opened of the former (thanks to RTE) and the ever-escalating fees charged by the latter. By official data, the period 2011-2015 saw state-run schools lose 11.3 million students across India, even as private schools registered 18.5 million enrolments. The parental preference is clear at just about every socio-economic level.
It’s not just aspiration, it’s about quality, and it’s a crisis, for it makes it that much harder to achieve even basic conditions for equity. After all, equal access to health and education is crucial for everyone to have an equal chance of achieving anything.
But then, that calls for more than just getting all kids into classrooms. One reform proposal that might work calls for a hefty hike in India’s overall outlay on education to upgrade state-run schools so that they can compete with the private sector, even as fee systems for them are put in place and fee vouchers sent to parents via a Direct Benefit Transfer mechanism. With parents free to choose where to send their kids, schools would do a better job of teaching as they vie for students (and vouchers). In urban areas, this could possibly solve the performance problem of sarkari schools.
In the interiors, though, where it’s a task just asking a teacher to trudge into a jungle to acquaint children with numerals, this sort of incentive-based idea would probably fall flat.
It’s here that the heavy hand of the state hasn’t yet lost its relevance— and Patil’s manual may yet do millions of out-of-school children across the country a good turn.