Restoring childhoods to child labourers in Tamil Nadu
By Radhika Srivastava
These young hands should have held pencils. Instead they mixed dangerous chemicals in matchbox factories, handled worms in silk farms, or learnt to juggle several glasses while serving customers in shanty tea shops.
These children, instead of going to school, spent their time earning paltry wages. No longer. In the state of Tamil Nadu, the central government’s National Child Labour Project (NCLP), with support from UNICEF, has been restoring childhoods to these children.
Ten-year-old Kavitha started working in a matchbox factory when her father passed away and all her six siblings and her mother had to take up low-paying ad hoc jobs. “All I knew was I would be paid Rs. 30 ($0.70) for a day’s work. I had no idea what I would do. All that mattered was that I would be paid,” she said. In the factory, Kavitha was made to grind a highly combustible and deadly mixture used for making matchsticks.
"My hands were in constant contact with the mixture. Within a few months, they began to turn black,” she says. Then, the NCLP pulled her out of the factory and enrolled her in a school where she got co-students instead of co-workers. The blackness of her hands still remains, but she now she can write. Her teachers say she has “exceptionally good handwriting” and that “she is very bright”.
As a student of a special ‘bridge’ school run by the NCLP, supported by UNICEF, in Palacode block in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, Kavitha is making up for lost time and is passing her grades quicker than in usual schools so that she can join a regular school in grade eight, for she will be 14 next year – the right age for the grade.
UNICEF Tamil Nadu State Representative Tim Schaffter says, “The NCLP is totally committed to the cause of helping child labourers by ensuring all of them go to school. We are also very happy to support this effort.”
There are 19 NCLP schools operating in Dharmapuri, one of the most backward and least literate districts in the state – with only 51 per cent literacy against the state average of 70 per cent. Since 1996 more than 3,600 child labourers have left their jobs, gone to school and been mainstreamed into regular schools in Tamil Nadu. All of them belong to deprived families for whom the need to earn money to survive was more important than getting an education.
A teacher at the school said the education of the children focused on extra-curricular activities as well on studies so that the joys of childhood came back to them. “We encourage students to sing and dance and also take part in drama. This helps them to unburden and bury their trauma and increases their self-confidence,” she said. There is hardly any blackboard teaching and learning is an interactive process in this school.
It is the teachers who persuade parents of child labourers to stop them working and send them to school instead. A teacher said, “Sometimes we need to counsel parents again and again before they agree to send their child to school. Almost all the parents refuse to listen to us as they fear that the income earned by the child will stop.”
To counter this fear, NCLP has started a scheme of providing a stipend to a child labourer who stops work and starts going to school. As per the revised scheme, the monthly stipend of Rs. 100/- per month per child is disbursed only after the child is successfully mainstreamed into formal system of schooling. Till that period, the amount of stipend will be regularly deposited in the Bank Account of the child. The accumulated stipend amount could be handed over to the child at the time of her/his getting mainstreamed. (To know more about the NCLP click on this link: http://labour.nic.in/cwl/ChildLabour.htm )
For Kavitha, convincing her mother to let her go to school was anything but easy. She used to attend a government-run school, but her mother, unaware of the benefits of education and uneducated herself, pulled her out and instead sent her to the factory. Her mother has finally relented but wants her to prove that it makes better sense to go to school rather than the factory. “I will prove it,” she says with tears in her eyes and looks up to her teachers, who nod their heads in approval.