`Send the child to school'
No shock or outrage because children are working.
One year after you were awarded the Magsaysay, what do you see about your work?
The award has given us a larger group of supporters. We needed the support of those who really matter in terms of policy, those in business, the media and those who decide policy. We had no access to them earlier. I think this award helped give us access to them. That was important.
What is the background of the Foundation, initial struggles, its objectives ...
The MV Foundation was established in memory of my grandfather Prof. M. Venkatarangaiah. He died in 1981and his family established the Foundation. We began work with activities dear to my grandfather like research on development issues, with a strong emphasis on liberal philosophy, on citizenship and rights, and discussions on our Constitution. We were also giving scholarships to poor students and helped some on their way to Ph.Ds. These were our initial activities.
When did the focus shift to child-labour and the marginalised children? What was the motivating factor?
The focus shifted in 1990-91 to rights of the child and the fact that children should not be exploited. The motivation came from a discussion within the family. It was a sort of continuation of a project I was doing for the University called the Shramik Vidyapeeth basically a workers' educational programme, especially for adults.
We did a lot of work on identification, release and rehabilitation of bonded labour. We also got them access to the legal instruments in their favour the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act.
K. RAMESH BABU
Working exclusively for the children ... Shanta Sinha.
We also found that 40 per cent were actually children. By the time I rejoined the University, we felt that the issue should be explored further. In 1991, in Andhra Pradesh at least, there were no voluntary agencies working exclusively for children. We decided to fill this vacuum.
Last year, when you got the Magsaysay Award, about 2,40,000 children had been enrolled in schools and more than 25,000 children had passed out of school in 12 years due to the Foundation's efforts. What is the status today?
We are working in 137 mandals at the moment, covering 6000 villages in 13 districts. We have withdrawn some 300,000 children from work and put them into formal schools. We first withdraw older children from work and prepare them for formal schools through residential bridge courses. We have a volunteer base of 80,000. We work through 1,000 gram panchayats. In 800 villages, 95 per cent of the children are going to school regularly.
Eighty thousand? How do you get these volunteers, and how are they?
Here we are talking of young boys and young girls in the villages who have managed to reach Std. X on their own. This is the backbone of our support structure. There are also the parents, gram panchayats, government teachers and erstwhile employees in schools.
Many have joined the Child Rights Protection Forum, which is open to anybody who believes in the right of a child to go to school. There is a nominal membership fee of Rs. 25 per year. There are 20,000 registered members. Some are agriculturists; some are truck drivers... They are not full-time workers. They volunteer for children's causes. Most of them are of high school standard and some of them have gone beyond that.
What are you doing in the urban sector and how different is it from the rural area?
We have started work in the urban sector this year, with the Hyderabad Round Table. Many wanted to know if our model would work in the urban sector but were not convinced when we said it would. So we thought we should have hands-on experience with the urban sector as well.
But the milieu is different. What difficulties do you face, and how do you overcome them?
The mindset of people rich or poor is the same in both sectors. There is no shock or outrage because children are working. Instead there is acceptance. We are working through the ward members, the slums' school education society members almost anyone who is a stakeholder in the slums. With the teachers' help, we try to get more children into school.
I'll give you an example. According to an estimate, in Hyderabad, there are 40,000 children working as domestic servants. They have migrated from the villages and lead lonely, friendless lives. That's the difference between rural and urban. We don't have access to these children. In a village, there is a sense of community. We can interact with the village as a whole and make it child-labour free.
In the urban slums, there is stratification based on community, region and economic factors. There is no cohesion. Yet, it is not impossible. One advantage is that, in an urban set up, they can see the advantages of education. There is no need to convince them, unlike in the rural sector.
Did you encounter resistance in the cities, and from whom?
Resistance as such has been minimal. But we found that where there are schools, there are no slums and where there are slums, we have no schools! So the problem is a mismatch between the availability of schools and availability of children. Most slums are illegal; so we can't build schools there. And the land sharks are formidable. We have involved the community so that children are allowed to study and the bit of land used is not affected.
You have a strong presence in villages. Do you set up schools there yourselves?
Actually, we don't set up schools. We send children to government schools. If we find a school but no teacher, we mobilise the community and somebody volunteers to teach. After that, we sit with the government and pressure them to send a qualified teacher. In some places there are teachers but they sub-contract their jobs. We involve the community and see that the person does not do this. Our main thrust is on mobilising the community. In our areas, we now have some 2,500 teachers who have formed a "Forum for liberation of Child Labour".
What is the nature of these teachers?
They are mostly primary school teachers. Now, we are trying to get into the high school level, where there are problems. High schools are crucial to the issue of abolishing child labour. One of our teachers got the President's Award for the Best Teacher. This motivated all teachers to perform better. Somehow we are able to develop the social ambience to get the best from the teacher as well.
Such a huge organisation must need funds. How do you meet that requirement?
We negotiate with the Government and see that funds are given. Often funds are not released; salaries are not paid in time. This happens with most NGOs. We are no exception. Depending on the Government (alone) is very risky. At the same time, we have to work with the government.
You are a Non-Government Organisation. Is there no funding from non-government sources?
We get some funds from a Dutch donor agency called Hivos, some from UNDP and some Norwegian industries, from the Catholic Relief Services. The Tata Trust has given us some Institutional grants. So, we are a multi-funded organisation.
Many of these donors have a time-bound programme. Some will fund the programme for four or eight years, after which they want us to be self-sustaining. But an educational programme is an inter-generational programme. The best thing would be to support it for at least 10 years, for one generation to go through.
What has been the response of the Government of Andhra Pradesh?
In terms of policies it has been pretty good. They have a perspective that matches ours in the matter of children. The community, peer pressure and some very sensitive bureaucrats put in lot of work. I would even say some politicians. A network of some politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs has been able to make the government think of child labour and its elimination, along with the strategies for universalisation of education.
Do you interact regularly with politicians and bureaucrats about your views?
Yes, but this does not happen in a vacuum. We need the help of the politician or the bureaucracy to resolve conflicts and to take up specific instances where we need their help.
Have you tried to replicate this model elsewhere?
In the last two years, the Assam Sarva Sikhya Abhiyan invited us. This is a DPEP project. Also Madhya Pradesh, covering 25 Blocks. This is through the government. We are also working with NGOs in Maharashtra and Orissa. We are now establishing contacts in Tamil Nadu. In addition, we have work in Nepal with a project called Asman Nepal.
Many children work in the city, often for 12 hours or more. Have you done anything for them?
This is covered by a government project called Bala Jyoti. In the city we started working in the slums and pressured the government to regularise schools there. There are now 500 such schools. The schools established earlier under Bala Jyoti were about to be closed down because there were teachers but no students.
The central budget this year allots 12 per cent for education. Do you think that this will reach the grassroots?
I think the Government has to do much more to build processes for delivery. They have to have transparency, review committees involving officials and non-officials who will question and also support efforts at the State, district level and lower down. The Government alone cannot do this. It should define clearly its role and also that of others in the matter of delivery. All should work together in spending the money for the benefit of the children.
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