India’s lost children

IndUS Business Journal

By Paul Imbesi

Groups work to abolish child labor, help educate former youth workers

According to the India-based Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation, there are 80 million child laborers working in India. This non-governmental organization has been working for over 13 years to get the message out about abolishing this practice, but it has also gone a step further — it is helping former child laborers by providing them with an education.

The Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation — known as the MV Foundation — started a bridge course for child laborers who never set foot in a classroom. This course takes in child laborers from the ages of 9 to 14 and puts them into an intensive learning program for about a year. After the year is up, the child is then placed into the appropriate grade.

"The bridge course gives these children confidence," said Venkat Reddy, a coordinator with the MV Foundation. "They are bridging the gap."

Reddy said these children cannot be automatically placed in the same grade with children their own age because they do not have the proper educational background. He added that it would also be socially difficult for an 11-year-old to be in the same grade as a 7-year-old.

Reddy said that education and child labor are "two sides of the same coin." He explained that education increases the chances of abolishing child labor because it gives these children options, which were not available when they were working.

When the MV Foundation started its bridge course in 1991, there were 16 students. Since then, 60,000 children have been educated. Reddy said there are about 200 former child laborers in a bridge course at a time.

The MV Foundation is headquartered in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh, and primarily works within this Indian state. Reddy said that according to the 2001 census, there are 17 million children between the ages of 9 and 14 in Andhra Pradesh, and 4.5 million of them are not attending schools. The MV Foundation considers these children child laborers.

Reddy's organization takes an aggressive approach to child labor. The figure of 80 million child laborers in India — which also comes from the Indian 2001 census — is actually children who are not enrolled in school full time. But by the MV Foundation's account, that alone defines those children as child laborers.

"A child who is not in formal school is a child laborer," Reddy said.

That is just one of the five main points to the MV Foundation's anti-child labor movement. The others are: all children must attend full-time day school, all labor is hazardous and harms the growth and development of the child, total abolition of child labor, and justification of child labor must be condemned.

The MV Foundation was founded in 1985 as a research institution on social transformation and was named after Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya, a teacher and historian.

Reddy said one of the reasons why his organization focuses on child labor is because it needs to be in the public's eye.

"All these years it was seen as a private issue," he said.

Reddy and his organization still have a lot of work cut out for them. He said that even though the figure of 80 million children comes from the 2001 Indian census, he is not confident the numbers have significantly decreased since then.

One area that the MV Foundation is concerned about is child labor in cotton fields. This labor-intensive work requires children to manually cross-pollinate cottonseeds. They work 12-hour shifts for lower wages than adults.

Reddy said that the job is dangerous because the cotton fields are sprayed with pesticides while the children are working in them. He said the children work without any safety measures, and they handle plants that contain harmful chemicals. Sometimes the children do not wash their hands after work, and the pesticides get in their fingernails, which can cause illnesses like headaches and lack of a menstruation cycle.

"This is very, very harmful. Any work is harmful in our definition, but still, this is very harmful," Reddy said.

The MV Foundation began focusing on this industry in 1992, when it commissioned a study by Indian researcher Davuluri Venkateswarlu.

Venkateswarlu has continued to follow child labor in cotton fields and, in an October 2004 report, he estimated that 83,000 child laborers work in the cotton seed industry in Andhra Pradesh.

A year later, Venkateswarlu came out with his latest report, "The Price of Childhood," which he co-wrote with British agricultural economist Lucia da Corta.

In this report, Venkateswarlu and da Corta wrote that farmers employ children because they work for less money than adults, which saves them money. They also state that farmers can work children harder for more hours, and are not as independent as adult workers.

"Farmers also hire children in preference to adults because farmers can squeeze out higher productivity from children per day: children will work longer hours, will work much more intensively and they are generally much easier to control than adult worker — whether through verbal or physical abuse or through inexpensive treats like chocolate or hair ribbons," Venkateswarlu and da Corta wrote.

Venkateswarlu and da Corta's latest report was commissioned by the India Committee of The Netherlands, the U.S.-based International Labor Rights Fund, and One World Net Germany.

Gerard Oonk, a coordinator for the India Committee of The Netherlands, said it is difficult to free these children and put them into a bridge course because they are bonded by loans.

Oonk, whose group is a non-governmental organization that works with the poor and outcasts of Indian society, said these children go to work for farmers for half of a year in exchange for an advance that their parents receive. After they finish working, then they might go to school for the other half of the year.

"These children are more or less locked up for a number of months," he said.

With the bridge course, the MV Foundation is trying to unlock the potential of these children with education, which also gives them something else — confidence.

Reddy said the bridge course also returns something to child laborers — their childhood. "They feel they can compete, they feel they can be a child," Reddy said.

Although Reddy said the MV Foundation does not keep numbers on how many child laborers it has helped from the cotton field industry, he said that the child laborers who come in to their bridge programs feel free.

"The children start thinking that the society is for us. These people are for us. They respect [us], they're not exploiting us. They're respecting our views," Reddy said.

Oonk agreed that the bridge course gives children confidence that was not there previously. With an education, children learn that they have a choice in this world, and they also speak up more for their own rights.

Oonk said that the bridge course not only changes the children, but also changes their parents.

"[Parents] have not known children otherwise than bringing them up to 6, 7, 8 years, and then sending them to work -- not seeing them really as children who can learn something, and develop their own ideas," he said.

Oonk said when children enter bridge courses, the psychological mindset of their parents changes.

"You could imagine that when you use a child mainly as a sort of beast of burden, that you have a different relation to it than when it's a student," he said.

As a result of this education for their children, the parents — who are in a lower caste and looked down upon — feel a greater sense of respect, Oonk said.

"They also have little experience of what life could be otherwise than just working and surviving," he added.

As the MV Foundation continues to fight child labor in India, another cotton season approaches. Oonk said that although the season starts in the spring, farmers have already begun to recruit workers, and children will be among them.