Published: 11th March 2019
Here's how the NGO Hand in Hand has transformed the lives of underprivileged children
The work that the NGO has done to eliminate child labour and educate children won it this year's Bal Kalyan Puraskar
A two and a half hour-long drive to Kancheepuram, especially when the Tamil Nadu summer had just hit doesn’t really sound like a great idea. You would probably have to make a pitstop at every other sugarcane juice stall on the way and refresh yourself and hope that the sun decides to go on a vacation. But putting all that aside, we had something compelling that drove us to our destination — a craving for stories, especially first-person accounts from people who’ve been at life’s rock bottom. Bonded labour, exploitation, discrimination, hunger, poverty — you name it. They’ve seen it all. But for many such young children, the NGO Hand in Hand has played a major role in rehabilitating them and bringing them back to life.
So it comes as no surprise that the Chennai-based NGO was recently presented with the Bal Kalyan Puraskar, for their work in the areas of child rights, education and child labour elimination. A couple of hours later, we reach the NGO’s office in Kancheepuram, from where we went to a single-storeyed house in the neighbourhood. This was a transit school run by them, for people who’ve had to drop out of school at some point in life, owing to personal, professional or financial difficulties.
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The students there did not wear uniforms. They weren’t the regular chirpy teenagers you’d expect at a school. They are adults, who’ve come to prove to the world that they are capable of living a better life. There, we met a young woman, who had to drop out of school in 2005, owing to an early marriage. While she will appear for her class X board examinations this year, her son will finish his class XII. She laughs when she tells us about it. “I hope to get a job as an Anganwadi helper after completing class XII. This will be of great help to my family,” she says.
We also met Santhosh, a 19-year-old factory worker who is hoping to write his class X board examination. “I had to give up studies because of poverty. My father had an accident and was unable to work. But my income isn’t enough for my family to survive on. I want a better job and that is impossible without a good education. So, I work night shifts and attend classes in the day,” he says.
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Our next stop was the Residential Special Training Centre (RSTC), where we caught up with a teacher named Adal Arasan over lunch. It’s been 12 years for him there. The RSTCs are schools for children rescued from child labour and poor living conditions. Arasan tells us how it is not at all an easy task for the teachers to bring the students back to life. “Most of them are from extremely poor backgrounds or are gypsies. We have to literally teach them everything from combing their hair to brushing their teeth and regular hygiene. But usually, after they’re back from their homes, they tend to forget it. We have to do it all from scratch then,” he says.
Post lunch, we interacted with a few resident students. Each of them had their own share of heartbreaking stories. First, we meet 11-year-old V Madan, a sixth grader, who recently won the first prize in a state-level drawing competition. His father died four years back and the then seven-year-old Madan had to drop out of school. “My mother is a woodcutter and I helped her with her work. She earned `1,500 after cutting two tons of wood, which is a lot. Most nights, we slept without eating anything,” he says. Madan never slept under a roof, until the day a Hand in Hand volunteer found him. Life is different for him now. Even though he misses home, he loves his new life. “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up. My mother is happy that I’m studying well,” he says with a shy smile.
Most of these children toil as bonded labourers for petty amounts that their parents have borrowed
Prem Anand Gnana Sekar, Deputy General Manager
Another child we met was E Ellappan, another VI grader. He was rescued by the NGO’s volunteers from a rice mill, where he worked as a bonded labourer. “I mostly carried paddy sacks or cleaned the tank. I worked for almost 18 hours a day and wasn’t even allowed breaks in between,” he recalls. “Most of these children toil as bonded labourers for petty amounts that their parents have borrowed,” says Prem Anand Gnana Sekar, the NGO’s Deputy General Manager. Today, Ellappan hopes to become a police officer, just like most other children there.
These aren’t isolated cases. We also met a group of Narikuravas in the neighbourhood, who’ve had their children’s lives transformed because of the NGO. We also visit the RSTC for girls and all of them have new dreams today and are adamant about finishing school and leading their communities.
In the end, we also spoke to Dr Kalpana Shankar, the NGO’s founder about the Bal Kalyan Puraskar. “I felt very happy for the organisation. This award is for my team,” she says. “We hope to provide good quality education to these children. Soon we wish to see them in IITs and IIMs,” she adds.