Children, work and education


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SEVERAL months ago I visited an educational programme called Namma Bhoomi in Kundapur near Udipi (Karnataka). Over a hundred boys and girls in their teens were studying in a residential school, trying to upgrade their educational levels while learning skills for employment and self-employment. Young boys and girls were training to become horticulturists, carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, weavers and so on. Children of different age groups were working, learning and playing together – running from one end of the campus to another.

On my first day in Namma Bhoomi, a group of seven teenagers rolled out an enormous piece of cloth (traditionally known as a ‘phad’) and narrated the story painted on it by different batches of children over several years. They talked about the work children do – at home, in the field, with their parents, uncles and so on.

They talked about ‘Bhima Sangha’ – a union of working children, a children’s help line, children’s panchayat and appointment of children’s friends – adults whom the children can reach out to. All ‘working children’ upto the age of 18 are welcome as members. This organisation conducts elections, interfaces with the panchayat and tries to solve the problem of children – enabling them to be retained in school, prevent them from migrating to the cities and so on.

In the last five to six years, efforts to improve the quality of education in primary schools, planning for the future and citizenship education has energised the community. Children talk about the work they continue to do at home, before and after school. Education and work, many of them argue, are not self-contradictory – provided the work is non exploitative. Empowerment of children through the Bhima Sangha and the children’s panchayat (makkala panchayat) has made a difference. Interestingly, we did not come across even a single child who had not completed primary education.



As the presentation drew to a close one of them said, ‘We are children and we also work. Are we weeds to be eradicated?’ For a moment I did not understand what he was trying to say and I asked him who was out to eradicate them. Though he did not respond directly, I suspect he was upset with those of us who advocated complete abolition of child labour.

He said many children work – before school, after school, in peak agricultural seasons and during holidays. Older children went fishing with their fathers at night. Yes, he admitted, there were children (mostly in the 14-18 age group) who did not go to school and worked many more hours. He also talked about young boys of 12 or 13 from Kundapur, who run away from home to work in hotels and restaurants across the country. That, he admitted was not in the best interest of the child.

A young girl told us about how they ‘rescued’ children from hotels and went on a fact-finding mission to Bangalore to enquire into a fire where hotel workers had died. Their friends then placed before me a list of work that children engage in – those seen as not harmful and those that were. They read out stories written in their newsletter. Essentially, their message was for a more nuanced approach to the question of child labour and working children.



I must admit that I am considered a ‘hard liner’ on child labour, for I believe that all children have a right to basic education (not just primary education), which is a fundamental right. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when this group of young boys and girls wanted to talk about child labour and the responsibility of the community and the state.

I do not believe that every child who is out of school is by definition a child worker. Children drop out of school for many reasons – quality, relevance and dysfunctionality being important issues. There are those out-of-school children who just hang about; also children who are forced to quit school to work. We also know of situations where children mechanically go through five years of primary education and emerge barely literate – leading to community apathy towards schooling. Obviously the scenario is complex and does not lend itself to simple explanations.

Soon after my Kundapur trip, I went to the ‘infamous’ carpet belt of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. I met a large number of children who had been ‘rescued’ from work and were studying in an alternative school in a time-bound programme that builds bridges to the formal system. I questioned the children about work and education. Interestingly, most of the girls said that they continued to work – before and after school hours. They all worked on zari/gota work, cooked, cleaned and did what they were doing before enrolling in school. Most of them worked long hours after school. The boys talked about the work they did at home, the farm and with their family members. Not surprisingly, the boys had more free time than the girls.

I asked them what happened after primary education? There was little information about those who graduated from these schools – some went on to government middle schools, some dropped out. The numbers, spread and quality of government middle schools, the children felt, left much to be desired. Overcrowding was common and many schools were dysfunctional. What bothered me was that while social mobilisation for ‘eradication’ of child labour was effective, the quality of education in many of the alternative schools/bridge programmes I visited across the region was not inspiring. All those who appear for the class V NFE examination are declared ‘passed’ and many of them find it difficult to cope with the formal system thereafter.



The older children, many of whom had completed class V or class VII, were anxious about their future and eager to acquire skills that would open avenues for employment or self-employment. Essentially, once they cross the magic barrier of age 14, or in some cases age 16 (class X), they are no longer classified as child workers and are on their own.

A social mobiliser in Mirzapur stated that while ‘child labour’ had become uncommon in their area, many traders had shifted their base to Bihar and other parts of Uttar Pradesh. He also admitted that children continued to work behind heavily guarded shutters – most of them in the 12+ age group. There was no child-to-child network that could reach out to such children.

Travelling across the country, documenting primary education programmes, I came across school-going children who worked and out-of-school children who were not engaged in any full-time work. I also came across ‘rescued’ child workers who were not sure what would happen to them after primary education, tribal children who have really no school worth mentioning in their area, and urban children in night shelters and drop-in centres.



Are all children in schools free from ‘labour’? Are all children out-of-school workers by definition? How do we come to grips with the heavy work burden of girls – before and after school? What about children labouring during peak agricultural seasons or artisan children who absent themselves during peak business season? Obviously there are no simple answers to such complex situations and problems.

In the last 15 years the politically correct position in development circles was to declare that ‘all out-of-school children’ were by definition child workers. Several organisations and projects I visited in the last eight months admitted that while this indeed was their public position, they could not afford to be rigid on the ground. Conversely, there were those who argued that given the social and economic reality, working children had to be empowered and their rights protected. Pushing the issue under the carpet helped no one, least of all the children who continued to work. They argued that mobilising and educating children about their rights, creating a help-line and keeping avenues of dialogue open were perhaps the only ways to ensure that children are not exploited.

Looking at the work on the ground, I was left with the feeling that this divide was not as irreconcilable as it seemed. Let us unpack two rural scenarios and analyse the impact on the ground.

Scenario One:

* The starting point is that all out-of-school children must be brought into schools, thereby eradicating child labour.

* Emphasis on the responsibility of the state towards the fundamental right of every child to basic (not just primary) education.

* Simultaneously, mount a campaign against child labour – in the media, at the policy level, with the administration and the community. Declare products ‘child-labour free’, especially those meant for export.

* Identify and institute cases against people who employ children.

* Starting with contact centres in the village, organise bridge courses and enable children to get back into the formal system.

* Lobby with the government to admit children from bridge courses into middle and senior schools.

* Declare villages child-labour free and encourage the government and the community to take pride in this achievement – no visibility or recognition of work done by children (especially girls and those from small peasant families).



The accent is on social mobilisation and educational access, coupled with the duties and responsibilities of the government towards primary education. Teachers and social activists focus on enrolling every out-of-school child and leave the quality and achievement issue to the education system. They make efforts (at the policy and administrative level) to ensure children are admitted at higher levels; but where the ratio of primary to middle school and further to secondary schools is poor (for example, in Uttar Pradesh), there is little they can do after the primary stage. As their primary agenda is eradication of child labour, they do not have the organisational capability to take care of the educational needs of these ‘rescued’ children beyond a point.

Scenario Two:

* Start by talking to and gaining the confidence of the children and the community.

* Map the range of work that children are engaged in, both school-going and out-of-school children.

* Mobilise and organise working children into a self-managed association/organisation. Educate them about their rights, enable them to map the work children do and encourage them to set their own priorities for action.

* Simultaneously, work with teachers and the educational administration to look into what is happening inside the school. What are children doing, what are they learning and why do some of them drop out. In short, the pull and push factors that affect children’s access to and retention in schools.

* Children’s union/association to educated the community, set up a help-line and interface with local administration and panchayat. Create awareness about the rights of children (based on the convention on the rights of the child), namely right to education, freedom from exploitation, hazardous and non-hazardous work, shelter, nutrition and emotional and physical well-being of children.

* Older children encouraged to talk about their future – training, employment and self-employment opportunities and link education with future prospects.

* Children help-line to reach out to working children in distress, confront (even register cases) and work with the government, panchayat and employers to ensure the rights of children.

* Interface with panchayat, schools and the administration to address barriers and constraints that prevent children’s realisation of their rights, including education.

* Over a period, villages covered under the programme declare that their children go to school while acknowledging that their children do some amount of work at home.



The focus is on empowering children with knowledge, confidence and a collective strength to set priorities for action and help each other. Children discuss and determine what work they can do and what kind of work is hazardous to their growth and development. The net result is withdrawal of children from full-time or hazardous work, while acknowledging the work they do at home, in the farm, in family occupations and in supporting the family during peak seasons. The quality, content and relevance of education are brought centre-stage in this approach. Social mobilisation and community awareness is achieved through the association of children.

What do the two approaches have in common? Children who participate in their programmes emerge as self-confident young men and women, carry themselves with great dignity and are not afraid to speak their mind. Both approaches focus on building the self-esteem of children. Theatre, music, games and a range of exposure visits and excursions give children a chance to experience the joys of childhood.

The endpoint, at least in organisations working with rural children, is the withdrawal of children from full-time work and enhanced access to education. Strategies and priorities are no doubt different and so is the starting point. While one approach gives primacy to the duty of the state to ensure that every child goes to school, the other lays emphasis on mobilising and empowering children under the child rights framework.

It is indeed unfortunate that the debate on children, work and education has been trapped in definitional wrangles and pointless rhetoric. The fact is that not all out-of-school children are full-time workers and a large number of children who go to school do some work – within the house, in the farm, in family occupations. Girls not only go to school and do housework, they also put in several hours of work rolling papad, or beedis, doing embroidery, disentangling wool and yarn and so on.



Drawing artificial boundaries between work and education is not desirable – because a little bit of work in a non-exploitative environment and in the family is not detrimental to their growth and development. Children from artisan families pick up the skill as children and so do thousands of girls who learn to cook at a very early age. The issue is one of exploitative work situations and exploitation of children.

Universal access to primary education has little meaning in circumstances where social barriers prevent meaningful participation. I am reminded of a meeting in a Dalit hamlet in Gujarat with parents and children from the Valmiki community. When I asked why their children did not go to school even though there was a fully functional primary school in the village, they pointed to three boys and two girls. Apparently these children were formally enrolled and had even attended school for five years, but they could barely read. Regular taunting by other children, the attitude of the teacher and their social status erected insurmountable barriers for such children.

The average income in the Valmiki household was fairly high, with at least one or two family members in government or municipal employment. I then asked what they did the whole day. The boys generally hung around the village or went out to the nearest town. The girls worked at home with their mothers. They wanted to go to school, to get out of the terrible cycle of caste discrimination, but the school was beyond their reach. Local private schools do not admit children of families engaged in manual scavenging; they do not want to offend their clientele.

So what options do such children have? Granted, the government must take responsibility and teachers who practice any form of discrimination should be booked under the atrocities act. Granted that progressive organisations must expose such practices and make sure every single child can participate in schooling with dignity. P. Sainath’s series of articles from across the country confirm our worst suspicions – untouchability continues to be practiced in tea stalls, hotels, schools and health centres. Children from affected communities do not always have free access to education or even employment (other than their traditional caste employment).



How do we categorise such out-of-school children? What about the hundreds of children who drop out of school because they are not learning anything? How do we look at children who work morning and evening, and run to school in-between? How about seasonal absentees and children who help out with agricultural work? Where and how do we slot them?

There are obviously no easy answers to such complex questions. What we can do is to bridge the rhetorical divide between people and lobbies that are truly concerned about children, work and education. Pealing the layers of shrill rhetoric is the only way to get to the kernel; maybe then we can learn from each other in a search for solutions.