Mahendra Rajak was 6 when his family work pulled him in to work in the stone quarry where his father, mother and other siblings worked. Along with other children his age, Mahendra broke stones at the quarry in Geenj village of Allahabad district, where extreme poverty often pushes children to work. “School was some place other children went, not children like us,” recalls Mahendra, now 15 years old.
“It was very hard work. I had to break stones and work from 7 in the morning to 5 in the evening with only an hour’s break for lunch,” says Mahendra. “There was a contractor who did not allow any rest and threatened to deduct my money. I would be miserable.”
For 9 hours of work, missing school, play or any care, Mahendra got a sum of Rs 70.
CRY- supported NGO Sanchetana which began work in Geenj, persuaded Mahendra’s parents to send him to an informal learning centre which they had started in the village. The village did have a private nursery school but most of Geenj’s parents found it unaffordable.
“It was then that we realized that what this village needed to free children from hard labour was a free, government school,” recalls Pankaj Mehta from CRY. “We had repeated meetings and quite a few demonstrations aimed at the state education department; all of which finally paid off when Geenj got it’s first government primary school in 2002.”
But along with the struggle to get a school, came the struggle to fill it. “Since children were considered earning members, parents could not see how they were to manage to eat if the little the children were bringing into the household kitty were to stop,” recollects the social worker from Sanchetna. “So we put all our energies into changing hearts and minds of parents like Mahendra’s towards investing in children’s futures.. Luckily for this family, Mahindra’s elder brother started earning by then, so his parents quickly pulled him out of work. At the age of nine, Mahendra finally started going to school.”
A Leader at Nine
“I became a Bal Panchayat leader too: the children selected me,” says Mahindra with a gravity that belies his age, a quality picked up from his days as a premature worker. “Our Bal Panchayat, talks about whatever’s going on in the village; if somethings not going the way it should we try to find solutions by bringing it to the notice of the authorities.”
One of the first issues that Bal Panchayat took up was the lack of a playground in the village. The children of the village decided to go to Allahabad on Childrens Day, playing on the streets of the city’s main road. “Soon people were milling around, asking angrily why were we playing in the middle of the streets,” recounts Mahendra. “We told them, this is Pandit Nehru’s town, we have come to play here on Children’s Day” adding “we do not have a playground in the village.”
These simple statements of the children had a profound effect on the administration and it seceded to build a playground in the village.
Geenj has no secondary school and so after completing Class V, Mahendra cycles to school in another village 6 km away. His Bal Panchayat is working on meeting the district officials to get a secondary school in their village. “Once we have a secondary school children will automatically stop dropping out,” he explains.
More than anyone else, Mahendra is acutely aware that for villages like Geenj, the fight for survival is an ongoing one. The 2900 inhabitants of Geenj face an acute water scarcity in summer, when the few small wells dry up and people have to go to another village for water. land means that . “I just want to study, grow up and do a respectable job. I don’t want anyone working in the mines as I did.”
India has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest population of child labourers on our planet. 17 million, as per official statistics, which do not include children who work while going to school as well as children aged between 15 and 17 years. From mines like the ones Mahendra used to work in, to factories and brick kilns to brothels, dhabas and middle-class homes, child labourers are in every place where labour is bought and sold cheap.
CRY’s experience of over 3 decades has shown that child labour can only be stopped if its root causes - situations that force children into work - are also addressed; like the lack of a coherent education policy, insufficient schools, lack of livelihood for adults, poverty, marginalization, migration among others. Piecemeal, ad hoc efforts and knee jerk reactions like rescuing children and putting them in poorly managed and overcrowded observation homes will not do.
Which is why CRY works on removing the reasons that push children into child labour: Unavailability of free, quality schools near homes and chronic unemployment. Besides working in 6700 villages and slums like Geenj, CRY also propels the government at the local, state and the central levels to tackle the problem by looking for sustainable solutions that will make sure that children, even if their families are acutely poor, complete school.
In the photo, Mahendra speaks to a 1000-strong audience at Delhi's Bal Bhavan on occasion of the Sabko Shiksha Samaan Shiksha Campaign on Dec 11, 2009.