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According to MVF, what are the components of a good program?

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Any program to deal with child labour and education has to be built around positive aspects. It has to recognise that parents, even poor parents, are motivated strongly towards providing a better future for their children through education. It has also to recognise that these parents are not only willing but also capable of making the necessary sacrifices to ensure that their child does not go to work but to school instead. It should reject all arguments in favour of a child working however ‘logical’ they may sound.

In particular it should strongly reject the poverty argument and its implications. It should recognise that since any form of work deprives the child of his/ her right to childhood, any attempt to categorise work done by a child is a purely academic exercise of no particular consequence to the child. As such it should recognise that any child out of school is a child labourer. Consequently it should take cognisance of the fact that withdrawal of a child from work and enrolment into formal day school as a full time student is two aspects of the same problem and cannot be dealt with separately. Once these aspects are internalised the basic components of the program emerge.

The essence of any program to eliminate child labour is, first of all, to create a norm within the community that no child should work and that all children should be in formal schools. The strength for creating this norm comes from the belief that this is what the community itself wants. This is why it is so important to harness the positive aspects of the situation. Once the norm is accepted then the program has to develop in a manner that covers all children out of school viz. child labour, in the area. In fact the acceptance of the norm itself ensures that the community plans for all the children. Specific strategies have to be adopted for children in different age groups and every single child in the area has to be planned for.

It is quite possible that all do not respond immediately but the program itself should not be found wanting to meet such a response as and when it occurs. The formation of the plan automatically results in the school becoming the focus of all further attention, which in turn strengthens the role of the school itself. Sensitising teachers, various community leaders, employers and other affected persons to all aspects concerning child labour needs to be fully incorporated into the program as an independent component. Above all the program should invariably involve the youth; in particular the non-student first generation educated youth, as the prime movers of the program.

What exactly has been the MVF experience in this regard?

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In the MVF experience almost all parents, even from the so called ‘poorest’ segment of the rural society, are not only keen on withdrawing their child from work and sending them to schools but are also willing to make whatever sacrifices in terms of money and time that this decision entails. Once a child is enrolled and shows some progress, parents have even sold off their cattle, sheep and so on which were being looked after by the child and retained the child in school. Parents themselves and other older family members have taken over any work earlier performed by the child that inevitably needs to be done. There is some evidence to show that the mother tends to be burdened with the largest share.

This however is very rarely resented. In the MVF camps, which are the transit camps to enable a smooth shift of a child from a work environment to that of school one can actually see the manner in which parents’ attitudes change. Once parents realise that their child is capable of picking up studies and their confidence in his/her abilities grows they no longer think in terms of sending the child to work. They also tend to pamper the child a lot more, give small presents when they visit them at the camp, get photographed with them and in general like to be associated with them in every way. Far from worrying about the loss of income from the child’s labour they end up spending much more on the child.

How has the community responded?

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To begin with there is always some amount of resistance from various sections in the village. In the case of bonded labour children working against a debt the resistance is mainly from the employers. Usually these employers tend to be aggressive and on quite a few occasions the situation resulted in physical intimidation as well.

Over the years however MVF has managed to train its village level activists to deal with these situations through a combination of methods. The main strategy is to indulge in some kind of moral persuasion through the village level committees. Advantage is taken of the fact that any issue concerning exploitation of children tends to be an emotional one and the employers are necessarily on the defensive whatever their public postures. Calling the employer’s bluff very often is a good method of handling the situation. But this needs the backing of the community as well as the government machinery.

The MVF as a strategy does not adopt a confrontational approach. In fact the strategy is to involve the employers in a number of programs, honour them when they release their child labourer and make them sponsor other children publicly. The strength of the MVF in adopting this apparently ‘soft’ stand arises from the fact that in the MVF’s area of operation the community is fully aware that no issue concerning a child labourer will be avoided even if it results in a situation of confrontation. Employers therefore, know that the MVF’s approach results not from a weakness but from a sense of confidence. It is this aspect that has added strength to the MVF’s conscious policy of not allowing a situation of confrontation detract it from the main issue of redressing the grievance of a child labourer.

The employers on their part, after an initial period of resistance, have responded quite well. There have been innumerable cases of bonded labourer’s released, child workers sponsored for schools and so on. In several villages they have changed their cropping pattern (for instance from floriculture to paddy) to avoid having to employ children. The change of heart is as much due to compulsions of having to respond to community pressure as it is to a genuine desire to free child labour.

Broadly stated therefore, while a situation of confrontation does exist, properly planned, the situation need not necessarily lead to precipitation of this confrontation.

Would it be better to groom the child to pursue the traditional family occupation?

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There is a tendency to romanticize the whole issue of traditional crafts. The view that is often expressed is that traditional crafts have for century’s sustained rural economy with efficiency which modern systems cannot achieve. As a result it is believed that initiating a child to the family profession as early as possible is beneficial to the child who will end up ultimately doing what he is likely to be best at viz. the family profession. Thus not only does the child not have to waste time obtaining irrelevant educational inputs but he can also become a productive citizen and earn a living.

Taken to its logical conclusion this approach implies that it is best for children to continue in their family profession. This is not too different from the traditional social system where certain professions were earmarked for certain communities. Such a system would ultimately result in a situation where a potter’s child would end up as a potter and a weaver’s child a weaver. In fact it is this system that mandated that an agricultural labourer’s child would become an agricultural labourer.

In this approach the choice of deciding their future is completely taken away from the children at a very early stage. The fallacy in this approach is that it ignores the fact that the rural society is replete with examples of individuals belonging to artisan families who have risen to very high levels outside their family profession and who, in all probability, would have been misfits if they had not changed their profession. The true nature of education is that it equips a person to make a calculated choice at the right time. It is this capacity of child to decide his or her own future that we take away when we deny education in the name of providing secure employment.

Even the argument that a child initiated to the family craft at a young age picks up skills faster is not particularly true. In fact there is evidence to show that they do so much better after they achieve a certain proficiency in studies and after they attain an age of around 12-14 years. The whole attitude towards children, in this approach of incorporating them into the family occupation at an early age, is to somehow convert them into some kind of efficient workers.

It is an approach that views childhood as a process of converting a child into a worker and divides the society into two broad categories. One comprising those who can afford to wait for their children to equip themselves before they face the challenges of adulthood, and the other comprising those who need to put their children to work as soon as possible so they do not become a burden on the society. It is an approach often advocated by those who themselves would never think twice before sending their own children to school and who have no intention of reverting to their own family occupation.

Why is an outside agency required to tackle this issue?

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The main limitation under which government program operate is that they have very little capacity to extend to areas beyond the last level functionary or institution. In the context of education for instance government programs rarely have the capacity to cover issues beyond the school.

But, as the MVF experience shows, there is a vast area between and the school and the household that needs to be bridged if any program relating to elimination of child labour and universalisation of education is to be attempted. This is a critical area that is often out of bounds for government machinery. Thus while a good government program can, even when implemented effectively cover children already in school, an equal number of children not in school cannot be accessed.

It is this aspect that can be best dealt with by an outside agency.

How has the government machinery, in particular the teaching community, responded?

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As already mentioned, MVF has strongly advocated utilisation of existing structures and institutions for delivering many of the components of its programs. Thus there has been a large amount of interaction with the government machinery. While the response from the latter has varied it has rarely been one of confrontation. On the other hand there have been large areas of cooperation. The impact of the MVF program on various government policies mainly in regard to the education policy has already been mentioned earlier. The real success, however, has been the teaching community.

Given the fact that the MVF program makes the school the centre around which the whole program revolves the teachers has a very large role to play. In the initial stages the teachers were somewhat reluctant to associate themselves with the program and viewed it with considerable suspicion. However, a series of workshops were conducted to focus on the role of the teacher in the context of child labour. This has been an enormous success and the teachers for the first time have identified for themselves a completely different role viz. that of a protector of a child’s right not to be engaged in work.

This added dimension of dealing with child labour has greatly enhanced their sense of self-esteem. In many instances they have worked hard at evolving new teaching techniques specially designed for the working child. The success of these techniques, consciously designed by the teachers, has resulted in true teachers’ empowerment a fact that has resulted in their total identification with the program. One of the most significant developments in the state has been the formation of the BKVV, which is the teachers’ forum to combat child labour, which today has over 1500 members all advocating the cause of eliminating child labour through education.

In terms of programs, what exactly are the basic defects in the government’s approach?

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The trouble with the government’s policies and programs in regard to child labour and education is that they operate completely on negative premises. They assume that ‘poor’ parents cannot and will not withdraw children from work and enroll them in schools. They assume that the parents feel that the education system is irrelevant and this is another major reason why they will not send their children to school. And, finally they believe that the formal school system is not the appropriate system for children of ‘poor’ parents.

This approach completely ignores the fact that even today a large number of the so-called poor parents are sending their children to school. It does not recognise the latent desire on the part of even ‘poor’ parents to seek a better future for their children through education and their capacity and willingness to make sacrifices in terms of time and money in order to realise this desire. Rather it gets bogged down much in the nature of a well-fed man who is unable to understand how someone who does not get to eat even two square meals a day can possibly want the same things he wants.

In this situation rather than dealing with the problem of child labour in its entirety the government programs adopt a piecemeal approach. This is doomed to failure from the very start because even if the program is successful in withdrawing some children from the workforce there will always be others available to take their place.

In terms of implementation mechanism the reach of the government very rarely extends beyond the last point where an institution exists. Thus all its programs essentially stop at the school level and processes and issues that stretch beyond the school to the community and the household are essentially beyond its reach

As a result even the best program of the government can impact only those in schools and those out of school and at work cannot even be accessed. Given the fact that the most of the problem lay in this domain the capacity of even the better-implemented government programs to alter the existing situation in regard to child labour and education is extremely limited.

What has been the nature of government programs to eliminate child labour/universalize education?

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Both the “poverty argument” and the concept of irrelevance of education have played a major role in the formulation of government programs relating to child labour and education. As far as child labour is concerned the government’s philosophy revolves around the ‘harsh reality’ of child labour and hence even the legislation passed in this regard refers only to eliminating child labour from the so-called hazardous industries, while regulating it in the formal sector elsewhere.

This legislation specifically excludes child labour in family environment from its purview. Thus even of the official 17 million working children the various programs of the government target only 2 million children in the ‘hazardous industry’. Even these programs rely on such measures as compensating the parents for the loss in income from child labour, which completely betray a lack of understanding of the actual issues involved.

The education policy of the government succumbs to the poverty argument and the harsh reality of child labour even more. The biggest initiative in recent times, the Non formal Education program simply assumes that children have to work and hence advocates running of NFE centres that do not interfere with the work pattern of the children. Beyond this, apart from the empty rhetoric, little has been achieved.

Briefly stated, therefore, the government accepts unquestioningly the efficacy of both the Poverty Argument and the notion of irrelevance of education for working children. Both these concepts as we have already seen are flawed and need to be seriously challenged.

How relevant is the kind of education in formal day schools today to the requirements of a rural child?

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There are number of aspects to the issue of relevance of education. The most important one is, why is it that the relevance criterion is applied first to working children and that not in school. Schools and the education system in general have for a very long time been ‘serving’ irrelevant education to everyone. Who can say if the famous Doon school provides the most relevant education? However, for those parents habituated to sending their children to school this has never been a reason for not sending a child to school. For them the choice has never been to send their child to school, which provides relevant education, or to send them to work. They simply send the child to whichever school they think provides the best education at the price they can afford. That is why there are schools of widely varying quality in existence. So why is it that one talks of relevance of education only when it comes to working children? The problem of relevance is something that afflicts the education system as a whole and cannot be an excuse for keeping working children away from schools. It has to be tackled at a completely different level.

The second aspect of the issue is that one should see school primarily as an institution that enforces a child’s right to childhood by keeping the child away from work. It is here that the true nature of formal day school emerges. Formal schools, especially in the rural context have always been accused of not providing relevant education that would enable the child to be a productive entity. They have been ridiculed for functioning in a manner that deprives the family of the child’s inputs in the labour market when it is needed most. It is therefore, suggested that schools should provide ‘ vocational’ education often on the lines of a ‘earn while you learn’ scheme and that schools should be closed during peak agriculture work season as for instance the harvesting season so that the child can contribute to the family income.

A closer look at these so called ‘defects’ of the formal school system shows that it is precisely on account of these so called ‘defects’ that these schools should be supported. Vocational education very often is only a euphemism for perpetuating the presence of the child in the labour market from an early age. As for the timings of the school sessions, as an institution that keep the child away from work it is in fact imperative that schools function in full swing during peak agriculture season. Clearly, the one thing that the formal schools by any stretch of imagination cannot be accused of doing is supporting child labour. It is this that makes this institution invaluable for any program seeking to eliminate child labour. Above all the formal school is important because it is the only State institution that deals exclusively with children.

In the ultimate analysis when it comes to eliminating child labour neither the issue of irrelevance of education nor the nature of schools is of very great significance. The only aspect that is to be kept in mind is whether the child is being kept away from work or not.

Truly speaking the persons who are the best judges of the relevance of the education system are the first generation literates who have broken the mould and have overcome a number of barriers to achieve this status. Very rarely if at all does one come across a case of a literate, even an unemployed one, who would have preferred to remain illiterate. What the education system does not provide in terms of employment opportunity it more than makes up for in raising the self-esteem of the individual.

What is the relationship between poverty, child labour and illiteracy?

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There is a relationship between poverty and child labour, but this has very little to do with any economic compulsion that poverty normally implies. It is a much more generic issue.

Child labour and illiteracy is yet another example of the poor not being heard because they are not important enough. It arises out an inability on the part of the poor to access the right quarters and to articulate their demand effectively and has little to do with lack of income or affordability. It is an entitlement that the poor have been denied.