This 16-Year-Old’s Story Is Shared By Lakhs Of Children Caught Between Work And School

By Anindita Chakraborty:

Akhtar, a 16-year-old boy, who studies at Teela Mor Government Secondary School, Ghaziabad (Delhi-NCR), has just appeared for his class 10 board examinations. He feels relieved because he can now pay more attention to earning money, by picking waste in his neighbourhood. It is even harder for these disadvantaged children to cope with the examination stress, as they have the added burden of running from pillar to post collecting waste, to make ends meet.

Along with his exam preparations, Akhtar continues to go on weekends for work, for which he has to leave early in the morning. He comes back only around 4-4:30 pm in the evening. In his own words, “I get tired – do I have a choice?” This is to compensate for the regular income, which he has to forego because he wants to attend school. However, none of this lessens his interest or determination to clear his board exams.

For all his effort towards time management, exams are a massive hurdle. The fear of examinations is not only due to the lack of timely provision of books but also due to poor attendance of teachers in government schools, absence of any support from peers or parents, and lack of time for practice and preparedness to handle questions in an examination.

Akhtar says the history paper has always perplexed him a lot, where, even if he knows a few answers, he gets extremely scared and frantic because of the other questions that he doesn’t know. “I just end up writing all the questions repeatedly on my answer sheet, all through the examination.”

There is no one to guide him as to why it isn’t just important to know what to write in an answer, but also to concentrate on presentation, neatness, etc. While all this might be easy to understand for a child from a better-off family (who has the support of his parents or other resources), for someone like Akhtar, coming from a family of first-generation learners, this is a challenge which he will have to overcome on his own.

In a few days from now, ie on June 12, we will be celebrating World Day against Child Labour. Just three years back, Kailash Satyarthi won the Noble Peace Prize for activism against child labour. Satyarthi has highlighted child labour as a human rights issue throughout the world. Will this make any difference in Akhtar’s life? Or in the lives of other children like Akhtar who share the same fate? Across our country, lakhs of children are denied their basic right to education, owing to poverty. They are forced to drop out of school after primary education, in order to contribute to their family’s income. This income from a child’s work is crucial for his/her own survival or for that of the household. For some families, income from their children’s labour is between 25 and 40% of the total household income.

The move from primary to secondary school is a huge milestone in a child’s education. If managed well, this transition can be a positive step forward in a pupil’s learning journey and the foundation for success throughout their schooling. What matters most is that every child, irrespective of economic background, should be able to take this journey from primary to secondary school in a way that is successful. So, how can we prepare to make the transition as painless as possible?

UNICEF points out that India faces major shortages of schools, classrooms and teachers, particularly in rural areas where 90% of the child labour problem is observed. About 1 in 5 primary schools have just one teacher to teach students across all grades. Thus, the lack of infrastructure and adequate trained staff adds to the problem of child labour, particularly in rural areas. Illiteracy, resulting in a child going to work rather than a smooth transition from primary to secondary school, limits the child’s ability to get a basic educational grounding which would, in a normal situation, enable them to acquire skills and to improve their prospects for a decent adult working life.