Poojari Satyanarayana Swamy, Sarpanch of the village, is opening new doors for his community.
One man’s conviction and his community’s support is helping children go to school instead of work in rural India
By Sohini Roychowdhury
KURNOOL DISTRICT, ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA — Through the half open weather-beaten wooden door, a shaft of light strikes the flyblown mud floor. Brightly coloured pictures of local deities hang from rusty nails on the whitewashed walls. To the right, a table fan whirrs slowly, breaking the still silence of the air.
In the centre of the room sits Poojari Satyanarayana Swamy, Sarpanch (Chief) of Vemugodu Village, flanked by two young children. The red tilak (vermilion mark) shines brilliantly on his forehead. On the face of it, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. And yet in the past few years, a lot has changed.
“My village is making important strides in child rights, despite the occasional stumble,” says Poojari. “Nearly 200 children from my village age seven to 14 years were working on cottonseed farms a few years ago. Today the practice of employing children on cottonseed farms has almost completely stopped” he adds proudly.
Situation of child labour
Andhra Pradesh has the second highest concentration of child labour in India. According to the 2001 Census, there are 1.36 million child labourers in the state.
“The state is one of the largest producers of hybrid cottonseed in the country employing a sizeable number of children, most of whom are girls,” says Murali Krishna Madamanchi, Child Protection Officer in the UNICEF Office in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
“The districts of Kurnool, Warangal and Mahabubnagar, account for 96 per cent of cottonseed production in Andhra Pradesh and 62 per cent in India. Since children can be paid less and the employers can extract more work from them without facing any resistance, children are preferred.”
Poojari Satyanarayana agrees. “Farm lands in our village were leased to migrant farmers from the Guntur District for cottonseed farming. With the help of local contractors, girls were enticed to work through payment of advances and loans to their parents,” he says.
“These girls were made to work very long hours in the field in order to manually cross-pollinate the cotton plants. They were paid extremely low wages under arduous conditions."
Many of the girls were trafficked away from their homes into sheds on farmyards in the peak season,” he speaks with an anguished look in his eyes. “This practice had to stop. When I became Sarpanch, I made it my life’s goal to end the abuse and violation of children’s rights in my village.”
Winds of change
With a view to eliminating child labour in the state, UNICEF, with support from IKEA Social Initiative (IKEA SI), began supporting the Government of Andhra Pradesh, in the district of Kurnool since 2006 and in Warangal from 2008.
Under the pilot initiative, an integrated community-based strategy involving government departments, village influencers, community groups and children was adopted.
The main focus of the programme was on sensitising the community on the hazards of child labour; establishing a support group for children that demanded their right to be in school; rehabilitating former child labourers through bridge school centres set up in the villages before mainstreaming them into regular government schools; strengthening the quality of education through regular monitoring of bridge and formal schools, extensive training of teachers and introduction of a school-based campaign to eliminate child labour.
Efforts were also made to promote convergence of district and village level initiatives through constant interaction and meetings
Swamyji, as children call him, is helping children scale new heights
“There was something emblematic about my stand. It struck a chord in my community. It reflected dissatisfaction with the status quo, restlessness for change and a desire to put an end to violation of children’s rights,” says Satyanarayana.
“Like me, many others in the community, including women and young people, came forward. We went from door-to-door sensitising parents and children on the harmful effects of child labour, gender discrimination and the benefits of schooling.” The initial days were difficult Poojari reminisces.
“Many parents were angry at me for urging them to stop their children from going to work. But I explained to them that their childrens’ constant complaints of burning of skin, breathlessness and loss of appetite were due to long hours of exposure to pesticides in the cotton seed farms.”
Making a difference – one child at a time
Village leaders like Satyanarayana have waged a relentless crusade for the elimination of child labour in rural Andhra Pradesh. A Child Labour Prevention team was set up in his village comprising 14 members including youth leaders, parents, self-help group members, school teachers and representatives from the district administration and UNICEF.
The team held village level meetings every month to assess the situation of children and decide follow-up actions.
“Our combined efforts paid off. Of the 200 child labourers in my village, 180 children were admitted in bridge school centers while 14 more were mainstreamed into regular government schools.
Girl child education was incentivised by providing girls bicycles to travel to school” says Satyanarayana. “Slowly parents saw the benefits of sending their daughters to school.
Not only were they learning alphabets and numbers, many picked up valuable skills in computer education, tailoring, sewing and stitching and a slew of other vocational courses. Children also received free books and stationery, school uniforms and nutritious mid-day meals.
Those children that were ready to be mainstreamed into regular high schools in the nearby town were provided free hostel facilities by the State Government. We began making a difference, one child at a time.”
Walking the talk
“I’m leading by example. My older daughter is studying engineering. My younger daughter is studying in Class X,” says Satyanarayana, gazing proudly at his daughter Drakshayini, 14-years-old. His neighbours huddled inside the room, nod in agreement.
In excited whispers they say that their village has become a model for child rights and elimination of child labour. Anathamma, 60, marvels, “I never thought I’d live to see this day when almost every child in my village is in school. My hope now is to see a High School constructed in the village.”
“When UNICEF along with its partners ensures that children have access to a rights-based, quality education, we create an opportunity for families to keep children away from work but inside classrooms.
This impacts generations to come,” says Michel Saint-Lot, Chief of Field Office, Andhra Pradesh. “For any initiative to succeed it requires full participation from the community. The pilot child rights model in Kurnool was one such example.
Later the model was scaled up to the entire district including the neighboring district of Raichur in Karnataka. The lessons learned from this experience are now shaping a convergent child rights programme across states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan with IKEA SI support. Together we can and we will make a difference for India’s children.”