Magnificent obsession

Print edition : August 29, 2003

Shantha Sinha, the winner of the Magsaysay Award for community leadership, has rescued 2.41 lakh children from child labour and introduced them to school education.

in Hyderabad

AN academic and a social worker, 53-year-old Shantha Sinha, has rescued 2.41 lakh children from the abyss of child labour and introduced them to a world of opportunity that mainstream education offers. In doing so, the 2003 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership proved sceptics wrong and shattered many misconceptions associated with child labour.

Shantha Sinha.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Through the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF), a trust named after her grandfather who was an eminent educationist and historian, , a combination of innovative strategies and a dedicated band of young volunteers at the grassroots level, she has transformed the face of the educationally-backward Ranga Reddy district of Andhra Pradesh, which lies very near the "hi-tech" city of Hyderabad.

While Hyderabad has been feted internationally for its "developmental achievements", Ranga Reddy district is a study in contrast. It had a high percentage of illiteracy particularly among children, many of whom were engaged as bonded labourers. Liberating them from forced labour and mainstreaming so many children is a gargantuan challenge, which only the most socially-conscious and courageous persons can be successful at. Shantha Sinha belongs to that rare breed.

Shantha Sinha holds a Ph.D degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University and is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. She has received several honours, including the Padma Shri and the Albert Shanker International Educational Award, and has been a U.S. International Fellow and a Louis Marches Fellow of Round Table Foundation.

The idea of working on child labour first came up during her stint at Shramik Vidyapeeth of the University of Hyderabad, which ran vocational courses for the poor and underprivileged. Concerned by the prevalence of bonded child labour in a place so close to Hyderabad, she took up the cause and involved the MVF, of which she is secretary. The MVF was formed by her father M. Anandam, a former Rajya Sabha member, to look at social issues in rural areas.

From a small beginning in 1991, when a programme for liberating 30 children in five villages of Ranga Reddy district was launched, Shantha Sinha's endeavour has now grown into a massive social mobilisation movement, which has freed 2.4 lakh children in 4,500 villages from child labour involving in the process the community, elected representatives and the State Education Department in eight districts. In accomplishing the task, 29,175 honorary volunteers, 22,236 child rights protection committee members, 3,618 panchayat members and 2,440 teachers were involved. The MVF's strategy and goals are clearly spelt out in its "Charter of Non-Negotiables". According to the charter, all children must attend formal full-time day schools, any child out of school is a child labourer, all work is hazardous to the overall growth and development of a child, and there should be a total ban on child labour, and any justification for perpetuating child labour must be condemned. Shantha Sinha says: "The charter is the nucleus of the MVF strategy and there is no compromise on that."

Over the years, the MVF has developed a set of comprehensive and interlinked activities to ensure the successful transition of a child from the world of work to that of learning. Two major parts of the well-oiled strategy are mobilisation (sensitising the community often using theatre and folk arts) and the setting up of residential bridge camps (where freed children are trained to enter mainstream schools.) Importance has been given to girl labourers and the social impact of this was immediately evident. Shantha Sinha says that there are examples where child marriages have been called off and the girl and boy in question have joined schools.

While it cannot be denied that poverty is one of the main causes of child labour, Shantha Sinha challenges the standard explanation, which focusses solely on this aspect. It is often argued that poor parents see children as wage earners who can supplement family income and that the problem of child labour cannot be solved if poverty is not alleviated. Shantha Sinha, however, believes that a more holistic approach to the problem is needed. "These rationalisations have been involuntarily internalised, both by the poor and by society in general... . We need to question and challenge such positions favouring the status quo, to the extent where a consensus is built, especially among adversaries, around the concept that every child should be in school," she explains.

On the government's role and policies with regard to eliminating child labour, she clarifies that the MVF is not a parallel structure and is not created to compete with the government. "We cannot work in isolation. We need access to government and institutional support. Only then we shall know the inadequacies in the system, which can be addressed."

Can the MVF strategy be replicated elsewhere? In Nalgonda, Mahbubnagar, Medak, Krishna and Kurnool districts of Andhra Pradesh, a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have already successfully implemented the model. NGOs in other parts of the country who have completely replicated the MVF strategy include CINI-Asha in Kolkata, and PREM in Orissa; others such as PRATHAM in Mumbai, Lok Jumbaish in Rajasthan and the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in Chennai have replicated a part of the programme. In Assam, the MVF model is integrated with the government's District Primary Education Programme and has been implemented in nine districts, each having approximately 40,000 child labourers. The MVF model has now crossed national boundaries. In Nepal, an NGO has implemented the programme in two districts, covering 15,000 child labourers.

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