(Moving from child labor to education - by Hari Srinivasan)

The headlines read, “Construction booms as India heads towards a Global Industrial Giant Status.” But behind this construction is the pitiful plight of the back breaking labor of thousands of brick kiln workers and their children. By its very nature, work in brick kilns is seasonal, - December through August, and 90% of its labor pool are migrant workers from neighboring areas (source districts). Workers pledge their labor and get an advance of Rs. 45,000-70,000 from middlemen, at the time of employment.  Brick kiln workers usually stay inside their work places for the entire season (7-8 months) and work around 12-14 hours per day, including 7 hours of nighttime work. Bonded labor is not uncommon in this line of work. 

The children of these brick kiln workers, wander about in an environment filled with heavy bricks, playing with the bricks, and more often than not, help out Mum and Dad. After all, more hands, means the advance amounts are settled sooner. Why would the employers not avail of the freely available and less expensive labor that is children, especially if they are not doing anything else? Rampant child labor is the inevitable result for families caught in the perpetual cycle of poverty and illiteracy.  

Where and when does this shocking excess of helping out Mum and Dad end? All too soon, these children will be  old enough to  become adult migrant workers themselves. Childhood lost! What a tragedy! (Pictures at https://picasaweb.google.com/108092616141880893109/IRCDSEducatingChildre...)

In the Poonamallee Block of the Tiruvallur district alone, there are some 96 brick kilns, employing around 14,400 families. Estimates from ILP funded field studies, point to 960 children in the 3-5 age group, and 768 children in the 6-14 age group. The sheer magnitude of the numbers of children without access to education is staggering. 

World over, it has long  been recognized that education is the means to improving the standard of living of the current and future generations. Most parents want their children to have a better life than they’ve had.  But with their grueling work day, and night shifts, kiln workers have little time to consider  the future of their children.  And when the thought does occur, what can they do about it? They may not even be aware of resources that available to their children. They may assume that education is unaffordable and thereby unattainable in their lifetime.  Schools may be too far away or the logistics of sending their children to school may simply not seem worthwhile. Older children may have to play the role of baby-sitter for their younger siblings while their mothers work. The migratory nature of their lifestyle may make education seem an impossibility in the otherwise traditional year-long school systems. So many of these children end up neglected in the existing government schemes of ICDS and SSA. Local teachers are not consistent in their efforts to motivate due to the migratory attendance, distance, as well as the brick dust that the children bring with them. And what happens to the children during the summer months when schools are closed? Education models for these children therefore have to address a number of challenges including education in both the source districts and destination districts to ensure continuity.

Current Education Project in Poonamallee Block

The overarching aim of the IRCDS project is ensuring education for the children of seasonal migrant laborers in brick kilns.The current project focuses on the Poonamallee Block of 96 kilns in the Thiruvallur district. Preliminary studies have been carried out through ILP funding, to gauge approximate need and resources. It would cover 14,400 families, 960 children in the 3-5 age group, and 768 children in the 6-14 age group.  IRCDS’ role in this project would not be the provider of supplementary or substituting Government’s role. It would be facilitating, complementary, and creating demand from the affected reference group.  

The three primary goals are

Role of Community Educators

The staff structure is envisaged as follows. There will be 4 Community Educators at the field level, each covering 25 brick kilns (approximately 500 children). One of the community educators would additionally serve as team leader to coordinate their efforts. In addition to data collection,  family visits and community meetings, intervention would involve working with the stakeholders (eg: Peer Educators, Employers, middlemen, Schools, Non Government organization networks, SSA and ICDS schemes) at three levels. 

  1. Destination District (Jan - July) 
  2. Source Districts (Aug - Nov)
  3. State Level (Full Year). - eg: Transfer Certificates so that there is a continuity in courses between source and destination areas, summer camps for the school vacation months. 

Role of Peer Educators

Each kiln community usually has workers who are motivated and carry certain amount of influence. Two such Peer Educators will be identified in each kiln and trained about the schemes. The Peer Educators will encourage parents to enroll their children and take the responsibility of continuing to send them to school. The Peer Educators will also lobby with their employers to arrange school transportation for the children.

A Successful Model - Thiruvallur Block 

With the help of ILP funding,  IRCDS undertook a similar project in 2012 in the Tiruvallur Block (of Tiruvallur District)  covering 51 kilns and  1186 children.  Workshops by peer educators helped reduce pre-employment advances by middlemen and hence the need for child labor. Many parents left their children behind in their native places so to ensure continuity in education. Increased media attention helped focus public attention on the issues. The SSA and ICDS projects issued circulars for enrollment and transportation.  For the 2012-13 academic year, enrollment increased from 15% to 55% (from 52 to 242 children) in the anganwadis, and from  31% to 80% (from 124 to 354 children) in schools. Impressed by the impact, the Tiruvallur district administration ensured enrollment of 4140 children in schools from 293 brick kilns across the district. In light of the success in that district, the Tamilnadu State Government passed an order for statewide implementation. There are over 3000 brick kiln in Tamilnadu State. In effect, the IRCDS project efforts did help influence governmental changes on a statewide scale in all areas where there were migrant workers. 

All children deserve a chance at education, no matter the circumstances of their life. That is exactly what the current project at Poonamallee Block attempts to do. Issues like child labor need to be relegated to the pages of a history book and not be the current ugly reality of a rapidly developing nation such as India.  In fact, the long term progress of a country itself benefits from an improvement in the standard of living in all its people.

What can you, the reader do to give the gift of opportunity to such children in India? 

- You can help by donating at www.ilpnet.org
- You can help spread awareness about literacy issues in India.
- You can volunteer with the India Literacy Project 

About the Author

Hari Srinivasan is an 19 year old High School Senior, who deals with the daily challenges of non-verbal autism along and sensory dysregulation and fine motor issues.  In fact, Hari learnt to communicate via typing only a few years ago, which then opened up educational opportunities for him via online charter schools. He is very passionate about education being accessible to all abilities and backgrounds. He is a prolific writer, has won awards for his writing and been published. He is an outstanding student at his high school, consistently making it to the Dean’s Honor List and has been inducted into the National Honor Society.  His blog can be found at journal4hari.blogspot.com.