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Schools for all?

KATHYAYINI CHAMARAJ

The Global Action Week on Education April 24 to April 30, looks at the connection between poverty and education.

Photo: R. Ragu

Labour in the family: What about their right to education?

IT is school time on a weekday. At the migrant workers' colony in Shanthinagar, Bangalore, Renuka (9), is busy blowing into a three-stone stove outside her plastic tent to cook. At the Gulbarga slum, Anjali (8) is trudging around with her brother Saab Reddy (eight months) at her waist.

Family labour, especially of girls, is the main form of child labour that prevents the realisation of free and compulsory elementary education (F&CEE) despite more than half a century of shifting deadline-setting and fulsome rhetoric for its avowed achievement. Recently, the Prime Minister lamented that more than 50 per cent of children in India still fail to complete F&CEE.

Moment to introspect

The Global Action Week on Education (GAWE), April 24 to April 30, is an opportune moment to introspect on the reasons for this betrayal. Goal Two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to "Achieve universal primary education" by 2015, while the sub-goal is to eliminate gender disparity in education by 2005. Given the daily reality of Anjali and Renuka, this sub-goal has already been by-passed. The Centre's own professed goal via Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is to achieve F&CEE for all by 2007.

Groups in India are proposing several actions to focus on the plight of the Renukas and Anjalis of India during GAWE. A look into their lives may provide the reasons for our collective failure. Renuka was in Standard II when her mother ran away. Her father asked her to leave school and keep house and look after her younger brother.

Renuka is up daily at 5.00 a.m., fetches water, washes vessels and cooks a meal, all by 8.30 a.m., to enable her father eat and leave for work by 9.00 a.m. After that, she just chats around till the evening when she has to cook before her father comes home drunk. So what prevents Renuka and her brother from attending the nearby government school from 9.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m.? The teachers say, "We never knew about Renuka's problems." There has been no enquiry by an Attendance Authority as per the law to find out why Renuka is not attending school or any attempts to find solutions.

Anjali says, "When Saabu is four years old, I will go to school". Her father, Madappa, cannot work since he broke his leg after being hit by a lorry. Anjali's mother, Bheemamma, is the sole breadwinner. Anjali has to mind Saab Reddy and Marthanda (4) until her mother's return and also do other household jobs. Anjali cannot leave the children at the local "bread school" (the municipal balawadi — so called because the children there are given bread) and attend primary school because it accepts only children above three years and works only up to 1.00 p.m.

"Will you do our housework and look after the younger children if we send the older girl to school?" parents ask the teachers. The teachers have no solution to offer.

The 86th Constitutional Amendment (C.A.), passed in 2002, made elementary education a fundamental right. But there are no laws to implement it to. One draft of a Bill to actualise the 86th C.A. spoke of persuading parents by school development committees and gram panchayats. But the law also needs to say what is to be done if persuasion fails. The central Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act does not ban household labour of children during school hours, though that is the most frequent cause of child labour.

Silent laws

The Indicative Law on Child Labour drafted by the Second National Labour Commission — and several State compulsory education laws too — speak only of punishment of parents (usually with a fine), for a child's non-attendance of school without a valid reason. But this is never invoked even in cases where it could be done, as in Renuka's case. Worse, the law does not say the State's onus if a parent pays the fine but still does not send his child to school. It is also silent on the State's role in cases where the family or child genuinely needs assistance, as in the case of Anjali. There are no penalties on officials for failing to ensure the right to education of any child. The Karnataka High Court in 1997 had given the enlightened ruling that "the state being the guardian of a minor" it should take charge of the child and ensure its rights when parents are unable to fulfil them. This too has never been implemented.

Yet, ministers and officials may be jet-setting, attending international conferences on child labour and Renuka will continue to blow into the stove all her life, and peer helplessly through the smoke of ignorance enveloping her; and Anjali will trudge around with Saab Reddy at her waist, crippled and disempowered by illiteracy, for the rest of her life.

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