For 13-year-old Sanjay Mondal, carrying a load of 88 pounds on his head is routine. “I usually carry 10 bricks each weighing around four kgs (8.8 pounds) and cover a distance of about 200 meters,” he boasts. “I do 15 to 20 such rounds every day,” he quickly adds.
There are thousands of children like Sanjay who spend the best part of their lives working in the 400 brick kilns in North 24 Parganas district in the east Indian state of West Bengal.
The brick kilns serve as a source of livelihood for thousands of unskilled labourers from across the country and from the neighbouring country, Bangladesh. The seasonal nature of the work attracts migrant labour, many of them landless farmers.
The brick kilns workers are recruited arbitrarily by local contractors. Exploitation and complete disregard for existing labour laws is rampant in this sector. As the payment is made to the head of each family based on the number of bricks produced, it is not uncommon to find children involved in the process to maximise income.
At the sites, young boys and girls can be seen standing in thigh-deep mound of water, clay, straw, ash and coal dust, kneading the mix. They are also involved in transporting moulds to the baking centre and in drying bricks under the sun. The brick kilns owners say they are helpless if parents involve their children in the work.
Alarmed by the situation, the State Government of West Bengal and UNICEF launched an initiative towards eradication of child labour in 26 brick kilns in Haroa block of the district.
Under the intervention, children working in the brick kilns have been motivated to enroll in 15 ‘Multiple Activity Centers’ that impart formal and non-formal education. “Many children who migrate with their families to the kilns were earlier going to school, the idea is to provide them a chance to continue their education,” explains Piyali Mazumdar, of UNICEF’s local partner Prayasam.
To make learning interesting and fun, innovative education methods are used in the centres. The curriculum makes use of tools like learning with pictures, learning by doing, role-play, drawing, etc. The study centres also run crèches as many students are caretakers of younger siblings.
“We are working on a model with different services that goes beyond the immediate needs of child labourers. Holistic development of a child is the key,” says Francesco d’Ovidio, UNICEF Child Protection Officer in West Bengal.
Tracking and ensuring children of migrant labourers continue their studies when families move are other important components of the project.
UNICEF and Prayasam are also engaged in mobilising the traditionally oppressed and marginalised communities to empower and sensitise them about the need for sustained protection of children’s rights.
Rudolf Schwenk, State Representative, UNICEF Office of West Bengal, says: “Behavioural change is a slow process. As child labour is linked to income generation, it is very difficult to convince the families and show immediate results.
But through sustained efforts and structured interventions by the administration, local bodies and UNICEF, we can create the desired impact and ultimately free the brick kilns of child labour in the years to come.”