Child labour is a social evil that has grappled and adversely impacted the lives of many children across the globe. As per the estimates from the United Nations (UN), one in 10 of all children worldwide is involved in child labour. India is one among those countries where the child labour stats are high. And, to curb this menace of exploitation of children, work has to be done on the grassroots level. One such is a story of Nizamabad district of Andhra Pradesh wherein constant and effective efforts by Asok Kumar G, IAS, former Collector and District Magistrate, Nizamabad led the district to become child labour-free, write Adarsh Som and Sanghamitra Mohanty of Elets News Network (ENN).
“The successful drive against child labour practices in Nizamabad was the outcome of a dream translated into action, by breaking it down into very micro-level tasks after careful planning based on brainstorming sessions with sincere volunteers and discussions with the stakeholders; by sustained concentrated efforts put in by a set of committed people and total involvement of the community.” -Asok Kumar G, IAS
Nizamabad was a district known for the prevalence of child labour. Lots of children in the district are engaged in the ‘beedi’ industry. It was said that the dowry rate of a bride-to-be in the district was based on the number of beedis she can roll. The more the beedis the lesser the dowry amount. In a bid to tackle this social evil of Child Labour, the Government of India launched the National Child Labor Project (NCLP) of the Department of Labour, Government of India. Under the project, the Government had identified Nizamabad as a child labour prone district and had started 34 NCLP schools in the district in 1994 itself. About 1400 girls were studying in the 34 non-residential bridge schools of the project in the district in 2001.
The bridge schools were established with an aim to facilitate children who have dropped out from schools to come up to the level of the students of their age and get mainstreamed in regular schools. Once all such children in an area are mainstreamed, the bridge school should be discontinued there or shifted to a new area where similar children are available.
In the year 2000, the Government of Andhra Pradesh (AP) directed the State Project Director (SPD) of DPEP (District Primary Education Program) to identify four mandals in every district to be taken up for a special drive for Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE). In Nizamabad, the four mandals – Veilpur, Renjal, Yedpally and Nandipet were identified to be taken up to achieve 100 percent enrolment of children of the age group 5-14 years under the UEE scheme. Some preliminary survey was taken up in a routine manner and statistics obtained to be sent to the state headquarters in the normal way.
While reviewing the activities of the education department in the district, Jagadeeshwar Goud, Assistant Project Co-ordinator (APC) of DPEP informed Asok Kumar G of the updates on the activities taken up for the UEE program. A survey had been conducted to identify the “out of school children” in the selected four mandals and a meeting of MEOs (Mandal Education Officers) was held. To Asok Kumar, this sounded to have been done in a perfunctory manner and there was hardly any involvement of the people.
Following a review with the Project Director, NCLP, it was revealed that the bridge schools started long back were never shifted from the place it commenced operation which was defeating the sole purpose of their establishment. These were functioning as regular schools in disguise. No mainstreaming was done and the bridge schools were running as regular schools over a period of time. Asok Kumar was of the view that the schools were maintained for the benefit of the NGOs which run these schools rather than for the child labourers for whom these came into existence.
Considering the situation, he asked the APC, DPEP and Sudhakar, CMO that if a mandal can be made child labour-free within six months. The APC and the CMO agreed if they were supported and Asok Kumar assured them complete support from the district administration. They collated the data available and Kumar chose Veilpur as the pilot mandal. Kumar picked Veilpur as it has lesser number of children who were out of school, as per the data. However, the on-ground reality almost doubled the numbers. Moreover, Veilpur was a small compact mandal with a strong presence of Village Development Committees which had a good hold on the villagers. Also, the mandal was close to the district headquarters. The key officers like the MRO (Mandal Revenue Officer), the MDO (Mandal Development Officer), the MEO (Mandal Education Officer) and the Nodal Officer were young, committed and sincere workers. The political set up was also very congenial. Freshly elected to the Panchayati Raj Institutions they were also keen to make a mark. There were many active youth clubs.
Turning Ideas into Plan and Plan into Action
As the drive was one of a kind and was never attempted earlier, there was a bit of hesitation in the beginning. However, high spirits of Asok Kumar, Jagdeeshwar Goud and Sudhakar enthused others as well. A lot of brainstorming was done and tentative plans were formulated.
While the background preparations were on the go, the Government launched a new programme – “Chaduvulu Panduga”- Festival of Education. This posed as an opportunity for Kumar and team to officially launch their drive against Child Labour in Velipur.
A core team was formed incorporating some active youth from the mandal. Nirmal Kumari, Girl Child Development Officer (GCDO); Prakash, Lakshman, Sreenivas Reddy, Mandal Resource Persons (MRPs) formed the core team. They were supported by Sayanna, the Nodal Officer for the Mandal, Ravi Kumar, Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO); Subramaniam, Mandal Development Officer (MPDO); Shanker, MEO.
The GCDO was from Women and Child Welfare department and took care of the girl child issues; the Nodal Officer was the Assistant Project Officer of DRDA directly related to the DoWCRA groups in the district. He could push the DoWCRA groups into action. The MRO is the Mandal Executive Magistrate and had some control over the police. The MDO looks after all the developmental works in the mandal and had good contact with the members of the Panchayati Raj Institutions and MLA. The MEO had control over all the teachers in the mandal. Jagdeeshwar Goud was instrumental in coordinating the team in the mandal. Collector, as the District head and Chairman of DPEP and DRDA in the district, had control over all the departmental officials and could use his discretionary powers for dovetailing funds for any confidence-building measures.
Asok Kumar on July 9, 2001, launched the campaign at Veilpur. He presided over a meeting of all headmasters, school education committee members from all the schools in the mandal and the core team members. In the meeting, all promised to work to achieve the target of 100% enrolment and the roles and responsibilities of each member were clearly delineated.
Kumar and team identified the key villages based on the survey data and strategies were constituted. Prominent people in the district were identified and it was found that some of them were the main employer of the children. Sub-teams were formed to make a detailed survey of all school-aged children in each habitation. They listed out the personal details of the child, source of income for the parents and the reasons for not attending a school if found to be not attending. The exercise was carried out thoroughly with data cross-checking done with multiple sources.
As per Kumar, children seemed to be the best source who would tell without fear where their friends and same age group children were engaged. This survey brought out many startling facts like the extant of indebtedness, complex relations between parents, moneylenders and contractors etc. The actual number of children engaged as labour almost doubled compared to the initial survey data. The initial friendliness of the villagers turned to suspicion and in cases even to outright hostility.
Rumours were spread that the teams moving in villages were a part of the nationwide racket which kidnap kids for their organs like kidneys, eyes, for sale. The team was mistreated and were even asked if they were being paid beyond their salaries for carrying out the drive. The employers of child labourers used to send the kids in their undercover workforce sighting the team. Some villagers even refused to give drinking water to the team. However, the troubles became the source of motivation for the team.
The progress of the team was reviewed on a daily basis by Sudhakar and Jagdeeshwar Goud at the mandal HQ. Following the review meetings, Sudhakar used to brief Kumar every night between 10 pm and 11 pm. Sighting the problems, new strategies were made and action plans were tweaked accordingly. Kumar, being the District Collector ensured that all the major programmes including the ones at the district level were organised in Veilpur.
Kumar used all the opportunities to impress upon village elders about the need for elimination of child labour and necessity of education. Large number of posters were printed and pasted all over. These posters warned people not to engage children below 15 years in occupations. The punishment was kept as a fine of Rs 20,000 and/or imprisonment. Kumar directed the Sub Inspector of the Police to implement the provisions of the Child Labour Abolishment Act strictly and register cases against the violators.
During this time, the Government of Andhra Pradesh broadened the definition of child labour. From the limited scope of children engaged in a hazardous occupation, the new definition identified all children who are not attending schools as child labour. This made the drive easy, as anybody who is not sending a child to school could be booked under the child labour act of the state. As the penal provisions were publicised, no cases were booked in Veilpur. The team used fear as a tool to prevent people from enrolling their children into various occupations and threatened to fine Rs 20,000 for keeping a child out of school. The team even took photographs of children working and used that as evidence to threaten people to take corrective measures. One of the instances was when in a hotel after taking tea served by a child “waiter”, the team members paid the bill and pasted the poster declaring Rs 20,000 fine for engaging child labour by the side of the cash counter. The next day the hotel owner came with all the kids he had employed in his hotel and joined them in the bridge school. The teams also conducted raids at work spots and located children engaged in labour. The involvement of the MRO, the MDO and the Nodal officer gave the power of law to the actions initiated.
Another problem that popped up was of the migrant labourers as they did not have a fixed address and a place of stay, hence were difficult to track. However, special teams were formed to trace them wherever they went. They were told that if they want employment in the mandal their children should be sent to school.
Teachers posed another issue and were reluctant initially. Kumar held meetings with the teachers’ unions and sought their support. I also held meetings with headmasters of schools in the mandal and with the teachers. It was impressed upon them very clearly that the drive is directly related to education and that the teachers should be personally responsible for the retention of the children. Also, they were asked to motivate the School /Education /committees to involve in the drive and to make education in the schools interesting and attractive. They were told to take special care of children coming from the bridge schools and children who were having the fear of schools due to some bad incidents earlier in their life. Teachers were, further, asked not to beat or use very harsh words against the children.
Two residential bridge schools were started in the mandal. One was for girls at the Mahila Pranganam run by the Women and Child Welfare department. This was also a training centre for women in crafts like sewing, candle making, printing, embroidery etc. Since sufficient place was available for secure and safe accommodation of girls in the premises, the identified girl child labourers were brought to the Pranganam School. There were over 120 children at one time. They mutually supported and gave confidence to each other. Reluctant parents of girl children were taken to this school and shown the facilities, security and comfortable accommodation available to convince them to send their children to the school. Only after three or four days, once the child is acclimatized and comfortable, was the assessment of their competency level taken up and teaching initiated accordingly. Most of the dropouts had forgotten almost everything they had learned earlier. Using different strategies like games, wordplay, role-play, word cards, counting of seeds etc. the learning was made interesting and enjoyable. Their fear of schools disappeared and they were willing to go to schools.
The highly visible presence of the team members in the villages, their relentless campaign day and night moved the people. They began to reason that when these government officers worked hard for their cause why not they should join them. Some VDC members came forward; got convinced they motivated the rest to join the drive. The caste elders joined in. The pressure put all around- by the media, posters, regular visits by Kumar, public meetings, the dogged persistence of the mandal team even in the face of severe reprisals and opposition, Sudhakar’s Akshara Deeksha, hype all began to bring about an attitudinal change. Villagers began to realize that there is some sense in the campaign. Once the change started, there was a snowballing effect. The mandal people were told that theirs could be the first mandal in the state to be declared child labour-free. This played on their pride.
The elections to mandals and Gram Panchayats were just over and the newly elected Mandal Parishad President, members and Gram Sarpanches wanted to do something positive for the mandal. The local press and intelligentsia openly came out in total support for the campaign. Sensing the mood of the people the political leaders also joined the fray. They started attending the drive. The VDCs took upon to themselves the task of sending the children in their area to the school. Allotment of new schools to the district by the Government helped the district administration to improve access and to meet the demand of the village elders for schools.
At the end of the drive, every gram panchayat erected 10ft by 6ft boards giving the details of the number of children available in the school, the number of children going to school, etc. In every board, they proudly painted “Children in the age group 5-15 from the village not attending any school – ZERO”. This acted as a reminder to them and every time they saw the board, it was an inspiration to retain the zero drop out status.
Children were the best source of information and inspiration. They had details of their “counterparts” working in shops, factories, fields and elsewhere. They could ferret from these kids, inside information about the details of bondage or obligations of their parents with the shop owner, moneylender or landlord that made their children work for them. Armed with such specific information, the team could call the bluff of many landlords who insisted that they had no kids working for them or that they had no idea why the children are coming to them for work. With the inside information, the team effectively countered lies of drunkard fathers or mothers who took loans to buy ornaments by keeping their child as a mortgage. The children who were released from bondage would narrate their experiences in public, moving many people. The songs they would sing brought tears in the eyes of the listeners, strengthening their resolve to fight against child labour. The “Bala KalaBrindams” – the teams of child artists – were a very big draw, attracting huge crowds to watch their performances.
Role of Women Groups
Apart from child to child motivation, parent-to-parent motivation and mother-to-mother approach yielded good results. The women groups of DoWCRA discussed the issue of child labour and the need for education in their weekly meetings. DoWCRA meetings resolved to support such families with credit on priority basis which faced a sudden reduction of income to the family due to stoppage of income from their working children who were sent to schools as part of the drive.
Many public meetings were organized to drive in the point of the necessity of education and the need for children to attend the school. In these meetings the children honoured the ex-employers for releasing them from work. Under peer pressure, many of the ex-employers publicly announced writing off the balance amount (principal, its interest and penal interest) due to them from the parents of the kids and even gave books and pens to the children to pursue the studies. According to a rough study, the total amount written of totals to about Rs 35 lakhs. They did this, justifying it as a price for a good cause.
NGOs joined the fray. Not to be left behind all political leaders jumped into the bandwagon one by one. All religious leaders were persuaded to come out in the open in favour of the drive. Team members held meetings in mosques after the Friday namaz. Powerful caste leaders were roped in. All these helped the movement to pick up momentum and slowly it snowballed into a massive people movement. Local Doctors offered free medical checkups to them. Local LPG dealer gave cooking gas cylinders free. Local bank gave toothpastes and brushes free. VDC gave free trunk boxes to children. All the time, Kumar was directly involved in closely monitoring and guiding the campaign. This also helped to bring in an aura of seriousness to the campaign.
On October 2nd,2001, Veilpur was declared as a Child labour free mandal. All the 8,057 children in the mandal were in the schools. This includes nearly 800 children who were brought back to schools and the nine mentally retarded children identified during the drive and admitted to a specialised institution catering to them.
The biggest success of the program is that there is 100 percent retention and there are no child labourers in the mandal even 16 years after the starting of the drive. The cover story of the popular Telugu daily Eenadu’s Sunday supplement on April 18, 2010, and the article in “The Hindu” newspaper on September 25, 2017, is a testimony to it. It underlines the fact that only when the community gets involved, can major social evils like child labour can be tackled effectively.
Prof Mahavir Jain, Sr Professor in the VV Giri National Institute of Labour, New Delhi and a person who had served as Amicus Curiae for Supreme Court in many child labour cases; and his team visited Veilpur many times to closely know about the successful drive against child labour. Impressed with what he saw, he published a book “Elimination of Child Labor –A possibility” in March 2006, totally based on their assessment of Veilpur experiment.
Following the footsteps of Veilpur 10 other mandals achieved near elimination of child labour within a year and 100 percent enrolment/retention. Based on the child labour abolition drive in Veilpur “http://www.nizamabad.nic.in/code/Veilpur.pps”, a film was also made and won the Golden Nandi award for the Best TV documentary in Andhra Pradesh for the year 2002.
Kumar sharing his experience says, “Personally speaking, the love and affection the people of the villages in Veilpur mandal is showering on me, many years after I have left the district, is over-whelming. Every year, for the last several years, around April/May months when the results of SSC exams are published, I get calls from many child-labour-turned-students who have passed the exam. It is very fulfilling when they call and thank me and say “but for you, Sir, I would have been a waiter or an errand boy somewhere.”