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Hut schools for India's child laborers

The UUA Holdeen India Program supports schools for child laborers.
By David Zucchino
July/August 2001 7.1.01

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The girl was perhaps eight or nine years old. Her face was smeared wth grime and sweat. Her slender shoulders seemed to sink under the weight of four heavy bricks balanced on her head as she made her way to the edge of a brick kiln in the Thane district of western India. She hoisted the bricks to a man who stood atop an enormous mountain of dun-colored bricks. Then she turned and walked back, barefoot, to collect another load of bricks.

All around the girl, other children worked under a punishing sun, hauling bricks or chipping away with hammers at massive chunks of coal, their faces black with coal dust. Some were as young as five years old.

The kiln foreman, asked why children were performing such backbreaking chores, replied briskly: "There are no children working here. No one under age 17 works here."

Blatant denial and lack of government regulation help perpetuate child labor in India. Although child labor is not illegal, children are not permitted to work in "hazardous industries and occupations." The government of India acknowledges the widespread use of child labor, estimating the number at 40 million.

Among the biggest employers of children are the brick kilns, where 25,000 children work in Thane district alone. Many work 10 to 14 hours a day, breathing dangerous brick and coal dust and standing for hours in water to mix mud and straw to prepare the "dough" from which the bricks are made. Each brick weighs two kilos; children typically carry six bricks on their heads at a time.

The foreman at the kiln in Thane said his laborers are paid 53 rupees ($1.15) per thousand bricks, and one rupee (two cents) for every huge mound of coal broken into small chunks. Pradnya Savargaonkar, an official with Vidhayak Sansad, a Holdeen partner group that has organized migrant laborers, said wages are lower at most kilns, where beatings and rapes of children and women laborers are common.

Vidhayak Sansad has fought to improve working conditions at the kilns and enforce minimum wage laws. It has set up bhonga shalas, or "hut schools," to educate child laborers, most of whom are children of indigenous people called "tribals." The tribals are migrant workers who work the kilns when agricultural work is not available.

Beginning in 1995 with five schools for 500 children, the effort has expanded to 60 schools with 140 classrooms serving more than 3,000 children. The schools are built from the same tree limbs and thatch as the migrants' huts. The teachers are trained and paid by Vidhayak Sansad, which also provides food and health checkups for the students. In many cases, the children stay and attend school while their parents travel in search of work.

Vivek Pandit, who founded Vidhayak Sansad, said the schools are only one small step towards improving the lives of child laborers. "There are 72 million children aged nine to 14 in India who are not in school," he said. "Every one of them is a child laborer—or a potential child laborer."

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