Published: 27th January 2021
This NGO has rescued many child labourers from Karnataka's coffee estates and turned them into lawyers, engineers
A M Varghees of Vikasana speaks about their bridge schools and hostels that facilitate learning for kids who worked as child labourers in coffee estates, domestic workers and several other places
Once upon a time, Supritha worked as a child labourer in the coffee estate and areca nut estates of Karnataka. Today, she is a nurse working at a private hospital in Chikmagalur. Much like her, there are thousands of child labourers who are now working as mechanical engineers, teachers, technicians and so on. According to the data from 2011, the number of child labourers in India is 10.1 million out of which 5.6 million are boys, 4.5 million are girls and 80 per cent of them hail from India's rural areas. This is exactly what Vikasana, an NGO based in Chikmagalur is hoping to change.
Started in 1988 in the Tarikere Taluk of Chikmagalur district by some like-minded people, this organisation initially focussed only on women empowerment and organic agriculture in the villages surrounding Tarikere. So how did the organisation shift its focus towards child labourers? A M Varghees Cleatas, Chairman of the organisation recalls, "Since our focus was on women empowerment in the surrounding villages of Tarikere, we started reaching out to those working in the coffee estate or the ones who were unemployed. We would tell them about various loan schemes provided by the state government and help them start their organisations."
As the team increasingly worked with women, they realised that children and women's development were intertwined to a large extent. That is when they put the focus on the problems faced by children from poor families living in those rural areas. Varghees explains, "We realised that over time a lot of children were employed as child labourers in coffee estates or areca nut estates. It would be easy for estate owners to involve kids in work because they are paid less or sometimes nothing except two meals a day. Parents of these kids would let it happen because there was a lot of poverty at home and an extra hand working on farm or estate means an extra source of income. But we decided to stop the practice of child labour completely."
So what was their first step towards helping kids in these areas? They spoke about it openly. He says, "We felt that it was important for us to educate or sensitise the estate owners and parents about the laws on child labour. That's why we approached most of the owners and parents personally and requested them to let children go to school. While some of them agreed with us and let the children go to school, some estate owners were very stubborn. In such cases, we went ahead and filed a police complaint and got the children released from work." That's when they hit a roadblock, "But who would follow up with these poor kids? With no proper basic knowledge in any subject, these kids were shunned away by teachers and headmasters. So it was our responsibility to see that they learn to read, write and speak."
That's when they hit upon a great idea. Vikasana set up Bridge Schools to facilitate the basic learning for children who were rescued from working in estates. Varghees adds, "We set up our first Bridge School at Chattanahalli village to help these children shift to school. Here, we trained them continuously for three months in writing letters, words, reading and understanding languages and Math. After three months, we would take them to the government schools for enrollment in the new academic year. The school teachers or headmasters checked their basic level of understanding or writing and enrolled them. But we wanted these kids to continue their education without any hindrance. Hence, we built a hostel in the same Bridge School campus at Chattanahalli village. Once these kids move to the schools, they continue to stay at our hostel where they get free food and clothing. We also conduct various activities to keep them bound to schools and watch their progress in academics and personal lives. Their parents need not spend money on any of these things until they complete class X."
This process of training kids and enrolling them in the nearby government schools happens every year. Now the quota of child labour is not limited to those working in estates alone. They rescue the ones who work in bus stations, hotels, schools dropouts, domestic workers and so on. Besides their Bridge School at Chattanahalli, they have built another Bridge School and a hostel at a village called Duglapura. "Currently, there are 65 children who stay with us in these two hostels. During COVID-19, we had to shut the hostels and schools and children were sent back to their homes. However, they have returned now. Most of the kids we have worked with have good jobs. We hope to make an impact on many such young lives in future," he concludes.