A small yet eye-catching poster flutters on the blue cloth lining the Bal Kamgar Virodhi Sangathana (BKVS) stall at PUKAR’s annual exhibition and graduation ceremony. It reads: “Only the worst thief would steal someone’s childhood”. A quote that unfortunately holds true for millions of children across the globe, especially for BKVS, a seven-member group.
Made up of 16-18-year-olds, the BKVS group is part of PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Programme and has recently completed its research on the realities of child labourers in three west-suburban communities of Mumbai. The young researchers also invest a substantial amount of their waking hours working as catering assistants, electricians, garland-makers and sales people.
Their experiences of being employed as children and their association with Prayas – Ek Koshish, an organisation that works in the space of child rights, have perhaps been the catalyst in their choice of topic. Although one could be pragmatic while evaluating their decision of selecting this topic, it takes courage, a whole lot of passion and a sense of impartiality to attempt to study, unlearn and learn about decades of wrongs that you yourself have been at the suffering end of.
All members have either discontinued education or are pursuing it alongside their jobs to support their families, a reality that is not betrayed by their shiny and happy faces. When they came onboard the fellowship, they brought with them an approach dictated by prevention and abolishment of child labour. The research process, however, has made them look at the issue more holistically and recognise its complexities, especially in the Indian context.
Through its research, the group has made an effort to unravel the layers that cocoon child labour and challenge their own notions to see the bigger picture. Investigation of the impact that child labour has on children’s education and their lives has revealed that long working hours leave the respondents with little or no room to pursue studies.
One of the most poignant findings of their study is the ‘circle of poverty’ – with most children’s parents working in the informal sector, the monthly household income hits the ceiling at ₹30,000, not a significant amount for families with a strength of four-seven members. Some households have fewer members due to the death of one or both parents, some have grievously ill members and this exacerbates the financial situation of the family in question.
Such unfavourable conditions force children to drop out of school and seek work in the informal sector. Thus, ending up on the same road as their parents and completing the vicious circle. Unfair wages, abusive bosses and zero leaves add to their woes and have left the members thinking if the circle can be broken, for these respondents, and for themselves.
The findings shown by this study are also echoed by the members of the group. Sunidhi*, 18, goes to school while being employed as a garland-maker, a job she took up a few months back. She says, “I didn’t think I’d have to start working so young. But my family is going through a severe financial crisis and I have no option but to bring money home.”
The fellowship improved her critical thinking skills, and she is now in a position to intervene when her parents have a spat, and she sees this as a silver lining in her life.
For Raunak*, 16, work became a part of his timetable two years back, and as an electrician, he tries to contribute to the modest family income – he adds to make up for the subtraction that found its roots in his father’s accident and inability to work. Doing research has made him more confident and helped develop a positive outlook to deal with life’s curveballs.
Kasturi*, 18, has been working for the past 10 years and has recently secured a job to manage sales and inventory at a handicrafts store. Her mother (who is HIV positive) and she have had to work extra-hard to repay the loans taken to clear the medical bills left behind after her dad’s demise recently.
Working when she should have been in a classroom proved to be hugely detrimental to Kasturi’s performance in Class 10, and she quit school thereafter. However, the fellowship has made her resuscitate her plan to study further.
She says, “I used to always think that my mother would be embarrassed of me being a ‘10th fail’ but now she talks about me and my research with pride, and that makes me happy. The fellowship has awakened my desire to study further and make her prouder.”
Kasturi’s statement is hugely encouraging in the current climate around child rights because education is an insurance certificate, one that carries with it the promise of protecting future generations of children from exploitation.
*Names changed to protect privacy
Note: India ratified two crucial International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions – Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment only this year. While the move is a definite indicator of progress, it is also a significant marker of how much work still needs to be done for child labourers to have access to better childhoods.
PUKAR is a Mumbai-based research collective; the Youth Fellowship Programme offers Mumbai’s youth, especially those living on the margins, an opportunity to conduct research on a topic that affects them and the community they live in. The fellows, also known as ‘Barefoot Researchers’, are guided through a year-long process rooted in CBPAR (Community-Based Participatory Action Research) and take their findings back to the community to start a dialogue with its members. These stories provide an account of the transformation undergone by these ‘Barefoot Researchers’ during the process of research.