Onderstaand artikel is gepubliceerd in / published in: The Hindu, 5-8-2003      

Striving for better lives

Shantha Sinha, the scholar-activist, is unstinting in her crusade for social causes like eradication of child labour, compulsory school education and the status of the girl child. SUMANASPATI talks to this Magsaysay Award winner about the issues close to her heart and the activities of the M.V. Foundation.

ZEALOUS CRUSADER: Shantha Sinha brings a smile on the girls' faces.

THERE CANNOT be a better example of a scholar-activist - one who has bridged the gap between theory and practice and married idealism with concrete work. Shy and diffident she might seem, but when Shantha Sinha starts speaking on her favourite subjects, she does it with eloquence, passion and precision. Her data is unimpeachable, her arguments very difficult to counter. And despite repeated operational crises and shortage of funds, she has been running an organisation of 86,000 volunteers spread over eight districts like a well-oiled machine. Her approach is sensitive and the motivation levels of these lowly-paid volunteers amaze her no end.

"I always wish they come up and say sorry we cannot continue anymore, so that I can also give it up. But they say we are ready to work without a salary, but let us continue the work," Shantha Sinha says. Shantha Sinha and M.V.Foundation have become synonymous with eradication of child labour, compulsory school education and the status of girl child.

Shantha Sinha

The implications and effects of MVF's work are so wide-ranging and its achievements so crucial, it takes your breath away. At the same time they are obvious and grounded in common sense. First, have a look at some of the realities. About 20 lakh children in this country work in hazardous industries. Nearly 1.7 crore children are engaged in wage earning labour. And if you count every non-school going child as a labourer (what else do they do?) then India has 100 million or 10 crores of them! This means that nothing less than one-third of the world's working children are in India. And they are half of the entire country's children. MVF has latched on to this fact with an amazing fierceness of purpose.

During the mid-80s when adult literacy programmes were the big thing, Shantha Sinha was on the faculty of the department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad (now she is a Professor there) and more interested in adult workers in different sectors and the problems of unionising them. The appointment as director of the newly established Shramik Vidya Peeth for Ranga Reddy district in the campus gave her a great opportunity to see ground realities at first hand. "We worked on minimum wages, land assignment, unionising quarry workers and so on. But in the process we discovered that 40 per cent of the bonded labourers released from the clutches of their masters were children! And there were no agencies which worked exclusively for children."

HELPING HAND: The volunteer explains.

The idea of Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Foundation (in memory of her illustrious grandfather, a Professor of History at the University of Madras and a renowned educationist) took shape as a response to this need. It began as a collective effort of Shantha's father, late M.Anandam (reputed chartered accountant and twice member of the Rajya Sabha) and her brother Nagarjuna (a dynamic IAS officer, who passed away at the young age of 47) and other family members. MV Foundation started its operations in 1991 when it released 30 children from bonded labour in Ranga Reddy district. But they found that liberating a set of bonded children did not solve the problem because sooner or late they were replaced by another set of children. "We found that even to bring these bonded labour children to school we had to work for all children in the village, that it was only in the context of building a norm that no child must work that you could really reach out to bonded child labourers in an effective way." One discovery led to another. "By concentrating on bonded labour or wage labour we were completely leaving out girl children. And girls were not even properly in wage labour - they were working for the home, raising siblings and it was not really visible."

READING RIGHT: The literacy session for girls.

Ferreting out reality through close monitoring has been one of the specialities of MVF. For instance, a volunteer noticed that there was a sudden drop in the number of girl children from scheduled caste families attending school. Nor was he able to find them at home. This led to the discovery that a new kind of commercial farmer encouraged and supported by multi-national seed companies had entered the area and leased land at throwaway prices for highly lucrative hybrid cotton seed farming. It was a highly labour intensive farming and required working with hazardous toxic pesticides. So they cleverly created a cheap source of labour by inducing the poor parents of these girl children with fat loan advances and spreading a canard that only pre-pubescent girls could do the work and extracted the maximum work from the girls with a hundred other allurements. Nobody could have thought unless they saw it themselves that such crafty socio-economic manipulation was indeed taking place! The discovery inspired a concerted campaign by MVF in the late Nineties against hybrid cotton-seed farming.

Ranga Reddy district has been the testing ground for MVF for fine-tuning all its campaigning and organisation building strategies. The year 2001 was a major turning point when helped by the Government of A.P. they expanded their operations to seven more districts in the State. MVF is now active in 63 mandals covering over 4,300 rural habitations. It has been able to mainstream or send to school in the last 12 years nearly two-and-a-half lakh children who would have otherwise not received any education. At the core of MVF's strategy of enabling children of various ages to join State-run schools is the system of Bridge camps. They have evolved through trial and error a set of teaching methodologies. Says Shantha Sinha, "to our surprise we found that many children of the poorest were attending school, while the children of many who had better assets were working". "In large parts of Ranga Reddy district you will find government schools and social welfare hostels full to the brim. And the parents and citizen's committees keep a close tab on the functioning of these institutions. It has become a self-sustaining movement," she says with satisfaction.

MOTIVATING FACTOR: The older man encourages the young boy.

Her close associate and one of the key figures of MVF, project coordinator R.Venkat Reddy has come up from the ranks. He was a member of Revolutionary Students Union before joining MVF in 1992. "At that time we probably believed in the top-down approach but gradually through a process of continuous dialogue and discussion at various levels, the new strategies and the leadership emerged on their own. I think the best validation of our approach is when the parents themselves assert that what we are suggesting to them is good for their children. That's the benchmark by which we test ourselves." In terms of policy, the influence of MVF and Shantha Sinha's strident advocacy of full-time education for all children can be seen in the gradual abandonment of non-formal education, on such national initiatives like District Primary Education Programme and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and at the State level, the Back to School programme. The transfer of child labour from the purview of department of labour to that of education in Andhra Pradesh has been one of MVF's and late Nagarjuna's major achievements.

MVF readily offers consultancy and guidance to any agency or organisation provided they commit themselves to the five non-negotiables. MVF's senior volunteers are helping the governments of Assam and Nepal, in initiating and grounding child labour eradication and interventional education programmes. Internationally too funding agencies like HIVOS(Holland), DWHH(Germany) and CONCERN(Ireland) have drawn strength from the success and advocacy of MVF to lobby for the principle that a child out of school is a labourer. MVF has galvanised the process of bringing education to the centre of policy agendas. As of now it could be a drop in the ocean, but on many counts, the strategy evolved by MVF is fail-safe. And is eminently and quickly replicable almost anywhere. One has only to respect the innate wisdom and character of the deprived people. "It is a tremendously humbling experience that it has been such a successful programme, all because of the people themselves. We only listened to them. I am an agnostic but the love and trust we at the MVF have been receiving from them has been tremendous. It's a divyaanubhuti", comments Shantha Sinha softly.


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