They worked more than twelve hours a day. They threaded fabrics and wove beautiful attires with their tiny hands. They were toiling tirelessly to sustain their families. But, they were all between six to twelve years old.
In 2000, Percy Barnevik from Sweden visited Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu for working on a poverty alleviation project. He came face to face with a strange reality – the hundreds of child labourers in weavers’ colony of Kanchipuram. Plagued by poverty, the parents did not think twice before engaging their little ones in daily labour work at the textile units. Malnourished and exploited, these children were deprived of their chance at a happy childhood.
Fast forward today, these child labourers of Kanchipuram are now employed in respectable jobs as engineers, government officers or in corporates. The credit goes to Hand In Hand India, the non-profit organisation founded in 2002 by Barnevik to rid India of the menace of child labour. On January 22, 2019, the organisation was honoured with the Bal Kalyan Puraskar (National Child Welfare Award) by the President of India, for successfully liberating 3,12,519 children from child labour and educating them.
The curse of the weaver’s colony in Kanchipuram
Efforts For Good got in touch with Kalpana Sankar, the managing trustee of Hand In Hand India, who has played a pivotal role in saving lakhs of children in states across India. Since 2004, she has spearheaded the on-ground initiatives of the NGO, resulting in the momentous success rate today. A former officer with the Tamil Nadu government, Kalpana has now been the managing head of Hand In Hand for over a decade.
“The scenario in Kanchipuram was a shock for me. Schools were there, but the students were not. Parents considered children as opportunities to earn a little extra for the family, so they chose labour over school education for them. Kids would drop out of school any time to deliver extra orders for their weaver families,” reveals Sankar. The general perception was that two more hands at work mean twice the income.
She adds that the situation was worse for the girls, who were not even given a chance to go to school. “We would find the fathers lazying around all day, playing cards, while the children were enduring backbreaking labour,” informs Sankar.
Not an easy task to convince the parents
“It was a daunting task to convince the community about the ills of child labour,” she recalls. At first, she used to go door to door to talk to the parents. They would shut doors on her face. When she opted for community intervention with the help of the village leaders, paranoid parents questioned her credibility. “Who quits their government job and comes to this village? We don’t trust her,” were the doubts she had to deal with. Soon, she gathered a team of 15-20 dedicated youngsters, and together, they resumed their door to door campaigns.
“This time, they took us seriously. We sat the parents down and explained to them why at least ten years of school education is necessary for a child. They started to realise that we have come down to the village only to help their children. We do not have any hidden agenda,” narrates Sankar. “They took time, but gradually they came around,” she adds.
The local panchayat and administration posed another hindrance for the child welfare group. They were in denial about child labour, refusing even to see the on-ground reports prepared by Hand In Hand. “We have eliminated child labour, they were claiming. It took a lot of efforts there as well,” she shares.
The school of no study and all play
Thanks to her efforts, by 2005 Kanchipuram had a residential school, which admitted around a hundred erstwhile child labourers. “We knew that if we burden them with syllabus and tests from the very start, they will enjoy school no more than their scary jobs. So, in our school, the children are given a taste of a happy childhood for a year,” narrates Sankar.
The school at Kanchipuram is a little out of the box. The newly admitted students are offered their first taste of a happy, normal childhood. For the initial days, there is all play and no study for them. Once they get seasoned with the changed environment, only then they are sent to classrooms and handed books. The school is operating successfully for nearly 15 years now. When they see one kid in school uniform, happy and healthy, the parents are encouraged to send their wards to school as well.
“These are children who never knew affection and care. Until they are brought to the school, most of them are undernourished. Even getting three proper meals a day is overwhelming for them. Some of them have even been victims of violence at homes, so much so that they implore us to let them stay at school even during holidays. We have to ensure to deal very delicately with these tender souls,” shares Sankar.
From child brides to college graduates
Today, the number of child labourers in Kanchipuram is nearing zero. The same way, the number of child brides in Madhya Pradesh is also on a decline, thanks to Hand In Hand’s intervention.
In the underdeveloped belts of the central state, girls were once treated as nothing more than marriage material, to be wedded off even before they attain puberty. “Our team members were considered a bad omen at those child marriages. The families harassed and abused us, showering us with curses. But, we did not deter from our sole objective – to take those girls away from the wedding venue and put them in schools,” she says. And they have succeeded, as today around 70 rescued girls are high school students. A few have recently graduated from college as well. In Kanchipuram and Vellore, the NGO has prevented around 300 child marriages.
Rescuing the tribal children
In the tribal areas of Mudumalai and Tiruvannamalai, resides a nomadic population with very little educational awareness. Teachers have to trek through hills to reach these migrant settlements, so they choose to show up irregularly. Inevitably, the children know only work and hardships from the moment they see the world.
Sankar shares her scarring experience with a migrant community in Erode, Tamil Nadu where children were pushed into labour from a very early age. What was the work? Breaking more than 60 to 70 coconuts in a day, with their tender hands.
In another case, a village painter had lost his wife. He knew alcohol and addiction but did not know what to do with his small child. He decided to sell the child for 500 rupees to a labourer community. Fortunately, Hand In Hand stepped into the scene.
Hand In Hand have taken all these deprived children and put them in their own schools at Chennai, Tirupur and Tiruvallur. In total, children from over 1,165 rural communities across the country are seeing the light of education thanks to them.
Active in over six countries of the world
Presently, Hand In Hand India operates seven schools, both residential and non-residential. Over three lakh children are now regular schoolgoers, either studying in these seven schools or admitted to other mainstream government schools. Among them, around 24,000 are rescued child labourers. To ensure none of the rescued children fall back into their past misfortune, they have set up 365 Child Rights Protection Committees pan-India.
Away from the limelight, the NGO has been working in interiors of India with an integrated team of nearly 2,000 employees and over 16,000 volunteers. In fact, the unanticipated success of the working model in India prompted founder Barnevik to start Hand In Hand International in 2006, which is now active in six developing countries – Afghanistan, South Africa, Cambodia, Brazil, Kenya and Sri Lanka.
The organisation also has separate dedicated wings for the eradication of poverty, rural development and women empowerment. If at all, their recognition by the Government of India was a reward long due.
The Bal Kalyan Puraskar is a tremendous honour
Talking about the Bal Kalyan Puraskar, Sankar expresses her gratitude towards all her team members as well as the villagers who stood by her side when everyone else was against her.
“It is their encouragement that I am on the right track that kept us going,” she admits.
“Sometimes, it is extremely taxing to manage so many children across so many schools. I have not been able to switch off my phone in years and take some time out for myself. But, at the end of the day, I realise how many bright futures we are fostering,” Sankar signs off with a note of contentment.