When Gandhiji inspired a movement against child labour   

Inspired by Gandhi, volunteers and activists in RangaReddy district, now in Telangana, succeeded in freeing children from bondage and putting them back in school

A rural school under the programme (Photo courtesy: Social media)
A rural school under the programme (Photo courtesy: Social media)

Shantha Sinha

It was when I was part of an oral history project conducted by late Professor Bipan Chandra that I had the rare opportunity of being exposed to Gandhian thought on emancipation of the weakest.

I was also touched by Gandhi’s idea that the battle for freedom was one of changing the hearts and minds of people and of building alliances cutting across caste, community, religion, region and even national borders for a just cause. Non-violence demanded courage and commitment, love and respect for all, including perpetrators of injustice.

A campaign for total abolition of child labour was initiated in early 90s through the MV Foundation - a voluntary organisation based in Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh. The focus was on building a consensus against child labour. In defining child labour as ‘all children out of school’ and giving a call that every child had to be in school, the Foundation sought to build a consensus against gross injustice, inequality and caste-based hierarchy.

The Foundation built a strong cadre of local youth as child defenders, many of whom were themselves first generation learners from Dalit communities and understood the power of education.

These advocates for children’s rights were aware that the journey of the child from work to schools is an act of unravelling local power structures, stubborn traditions and cultural practices. But they felt compelled to win over those in authority to join the movement for children’s rights, convincing them that they too stand to gain when all children are in school.

Pushpa, a child rights defender and a volunteer, tells us how she risked her life to get Ganesh, a bonded labourer, to school.

“I went to a village called Ramalinga Puram. I found this boy who was pledged in bondage by his father after incurring a debt of Rs 50,000 to get his daughter married. Ganesh held me tightly and asked me to rescue him. I took Ganesh home, he stayed with me and I sent him to school. After a few days, Ganesh’s parents along with the sarpanch and others stormed into my house.”

“They threatened and abused me. At this point, I felt defeated; I had no support. But I mobilised support from the leaders, teachers, women’s group members and others from the neighbouring village. They all came and resolved the issue. The boy was sent to school.”

Narsimha, another volunteer recalls, “I did not know that I would face so much resistance from landlords who kept children in bondage. The landlords with a contingent of 50 people attacked my house. They shouted and hurled abuses at me. But I kept quiet. I said nothing. Then I appealed to the elders, one by one. I asked them for their support to the boy and his future. They dithered a bit but soon realised that there was a swing in the mood of the village. I picked up courage to appeal to the employer and encouraged him to support the child’s education. He agreed and we felicitated him in a public function.

Several such employers were felicitated in the village at the ‘Vidyadhan’ programme on Children’s Day, when each pledged to support the education of a child engaged as a bonded labourer. There were occasions when employers also decided to participate and took the lead in the campaign against child labour and petition the government for better facilities in school.

Indeed, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in the Chambal valley, which initially resisted the presence of MV Foundation volunteers, villagers were converted and decided to offer foodgrains and even space to conduct a bridge course for children. This was true of MV Foundation’s experience in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Assam and wherever it intervened.

MV Foundation thus built consensus by talking to political leaders, opinion makers, teachers, members of gram panchayats and women’ s groups. Nobody was an adversary and everyone a potential ally.

They generated public debates and discourse on child rights which became talking points at bus stops, weddings and wakes, temples, town squares, at wells, farms and workplaces. As Dhanamma, another MVF volunteer, recalls, “We formed a support group in the village with the youth, sarpanch and political party leaders. There was so much rivalry between political groups that it was very difficult to bring them together. We told them finally that they could have differences on other issues, but there needed to be a consensus on child rights.”

Thus local forums - the Child Rights Protection Forum and the Bal Adhikar Suraksha Samiti were formed with members from diverse caste, community, religion, class and political affiliations in support of children.

They gave confidence to the parents that they too could aspire to educate their children and as Shanker, another volunteer says, ‘the poorest of parents are now sending their children to school. They even buy children clothes, shoes etc. for the school with great pride.”

With the changing environment, school teachers who were earlier indifferent or did not attend school regularly, regained interest to teach and address the needs of the deprived children.

They also formed a forum for liberation of child labour (Bala Kaarmika Vimochana Vedika) and started teaching older children who returned to school. One of the teachers, Chandriah, mentioned in all humility that it was a ‘divyanubhuti’ (an experience of divinity) when he taught a released bonded labourer who had never been to school before but was admitted to class five.

MV Foundation child defenders bore many risks to themselves and their families. They learnt to negotiate with the community and show tolerance and magnanimity even towards difficult employers, officials, and all those who opposed them.

MV Foundation has been able to withdraw over one million children from work and enroll them into schools and make thousands of villages free of child labour.

Gandhian forms of resistance of changing mindsets is time consuming, requires tremendous patience and is fraught with challenges and innumerable risks. Yet, the power of dialogue and active engagement with the community and the system is the only way to empower the powerless and bring about change.

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