True News|May 15, 2006 1:12 PM| by:

Young Lions

When finally Damodar ‘Damu’ Acharya rebelled in 1980 and set out to organise oppressed fellow workers, little did he know what awaited him. It took him quite a while to ask, what he now says, should have been obvious: “Why are there children amidst adult workers at factory-gate meetings?”

World of the working child is barely visible to most of us. We have developed a blind spot. There are a quarter billion child labourers worldwide, including the US and Australia. India contributes a handsome share to that number. These productive labourers have few rights, let alone spells of innocence and childhood.

Damu did ask the question soon enough, and from that moment has grown an endeavour that has raised awareness about the plight of labouring children, led to the passing of legislation to protect them and is today, a worldwide movement that enables children to assert themselves in the life around them. Their sorrow continues yes, but at least now, we hear their sobs.

Discovery walk

Damu was born in 1957 in Basroor, Karnataka. Son of a poor temple priest, he dreamed of educating himself to land a stable job. He left his coastal town for Bangalore and gained his college degree in 1978. Then began the hunt for a job. He lived by himself paying his way as a caterer, construction supervisor and as an odd jobs man. Then came what he thought was a big break. Macmillan the publisher, was starting a photo type setting unit.

D Acharya B.A, applied and was selected, trained for 3 months and was confirmed as a permanent employee. Damu thought he had arrived. What a brand to work for, he marvelled! But his long walk had just begun. His shift began at 6 am. So he awoke at 3 am to walk several kilometres to be on time. At work they sat in a line like oarsmen in a galley. Their time out to the wash room was logged. They were not allowed to talk to each other. Just as well because 8 hours were barely enough to complete the work load. Their college degrees were docked with the employer. All this for a salary of Rs.200 per month.

Within a year Damu began to organise fellow workers. He was thrown out without his certificate being returned to him. And that crisis brought him to Nandana Reddy.

If Damu’s path to their meeting was from the bottom up, Nandana’s was from the top down. Her father Pattabhi Rama Reddy is an activist and an artist. Her mother, the spirited and talented Snehalata Reddy refused to be silenced by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, was jailed and paid for her convictions with her life. The Reddys are fighters for justice. Nandana was a natural trade union lawyer. She saw Damu’s energies and began using him for meeting workers at factory gates.

Saw them standing there

And that was how it came about that he saw them standing there. They were bewildered children watching the talk above their heads among adults. Soon however, they were to change Damu and Nandana.

A little research showed that 40% of all work-force in India at that time was made up of children. And yet, even the rights that workers enjoyed slipped past them. Unlike adult workers, who usually had families, these children were often from the streets, abused and kicked around.

Damu began organising children of Bangalore’s streets into groups where they could share their experiences. Each child was living through hell as a given, from which there was no escape. Damu decided to sublimate their miseries by turning their experiences into a composite play.

In 1984, Damu’s children staged their play for Ramakrishna Hegde, Chief Minister of Karnataka. “It was a compelling narration of the horrors working children face,” recalls Damu. “A young boy acts out all his agonies. He braves them all because of a will to live but the odds against him keep increasing. The climax was when he couldn’t cope any more – we had him run across to the CM, tug at his sleeve and ask, “Sir, is there nothing you can do for me?””. Hegde was in tears. So was Rajiv Gandhi, when the children at Hegde’s behest, staged the play again a few months later in Delhi.

The neglected Pandava

Wheels of India’s ponderous state began to move. The Gurupada Swamy Committee was set up to draft a bill to protect children’s rights. A law was enacted in 1986. It is not without its flaws, but India was a pioneer nation to focus on the plight of children.

Damu and Nandana had established The Concerned for Working Child [CWC] in 1980 to focus on this neglected area. By 1986 they had caused the parliament to pass a bill. That raised awareness about children’s plight all around. The press began to cover the issue. Children had come into focus.

Damu noted a strange fact when he went around Bangalore. There were children at work everywhere and a majority of them were from his reasonably prosperous, educated home district of Udupi. Famous for its cuisine and entrepreneurs, children were encouraged to fan out and work in the ‘Udupi Hotels’ that dot India. Damu realised his work was in Udupi district, which he had left looking for a career. He went back in 1989.

Being the temple priest’s son gave him credibility. The man who was organising factory workers, began to organise children. He reached out to working children planning to leave for the city. Most were slaving away as cafe labourers, cleaning and washing. He got a small group together and they called themselves the Bhima Sangha, after Bhim, one of the legendary Pandava brothers.

Why Bhim? Children spoke with great sensitivity: “Bhim was the most selfless of the brothers and was always taken for granted. He willingly laboured for the family despite neglect and ridicule.” They also chose the elephant as their symbol – for strength.

Beating the UN

The idea was to give children choices in vocations that would lead them to self-supporting careers. Damu says, “Poverty is not just economic as many believe. The worst form of it is the poverty of information that children are subject to.” Damu began to create a series of courses that would lead to self-employment: carpentry, masonry, basketry, horticulture, mechanical and electrical trade work, welding, driving and many others. They are housed in a residential campus in Basroor – called Namma Bhumi or Our Land – for the period of their training. While there, they are also humanised and empowered with arts, theatre work, music and debating skills. Nandana goes about raising funds and raising awareness leaving Damu to work closely with the children.

In 1990, CWC declared April 30th as the Child Labour Day. Thus the concept of one day in a year dedicated to issues of working children originated in India. Why April 30? Because the child worker must be cared for ahead of the adult one, who has the May Day. It was to be another 12 years before the UN’s International Labour Organisation nominated June 12th as the World Day Against Child Labour.

Bhima Sanghas began to sprout everywhere in Karnataka. Each is an informal club where working and school-going children gather and exchange notes. Damu then began to ask local panchayats to allow children to attend their proceedings – and that was the beginning of Makkala Panchayat [Children’s Panchayat]

Children activists

What a dramatic difference that has made! Children have brought new perspectives and ideas to decision making processes. There are any number of heart-warming examples of children’s activism. Here is a small selection:

1. 12 year old Rehman could not bear seeing his ‘sister’ being teased by adult louts. She was a domestic worker. Rehman roused his Bhima Sangha members to stand up to the bullies and have them jailed for 10 days.

2. Uchengamma, a 15 year old Dalit girl of Holagundi village, Bellary Dt. in Karanataka fought against her parents design to marry her off. Her Bhima Sangha rallied to her help, even smuggling her out of a locked room in her house and dramatising her plight through the media. Her success has led to six other child marriages being stopped.

3. Members of several Bhima Sanghas decided to meet the new Mayor of Bangalore and bring to his notice, problems that children face. They marched two kilometres through lanes in their neighbourhood carrying placards and singing songs. An 11 year old carried her two year old sister throughout the walkathon. The mayor sorted out many of their problems.

4. When the Konkan Railway was laid out, it ran through Nandanavana and Karikalli villages cutting off an important foot path through which children fetched firewood and ran errands. People had to make 10km detours daily. About 900 families were affected. Local Bhima Sangha swung into action and stood with protesting adults. It made individual representations and received a direct invitation from the authorities. Children met them and convinced them of the need for an alternate path. They got it.

5. Bhima Sangha members are great communicators. They run a magazine called Bhima Patrike, which has an apex editorial committee. Children also produce a wall newspaper. Bhima Kala Kendra is a children’s theatre group that creates awareness about the environment, HIV/AIDS, communalism, plastic litter etc. They also broadcast an audio magazine called Bhima Vahini, although it is currently off the air. Mainstream media uses a number of Bhima Sangha correspondents in villages to gather news.

6. In Nandroli hamlet of Keradi Panchayat, members of Bhima Sangha worked out the amount spent by the village on liquor, using a breathtakingly simple technique. They went to the liquor vendor and cleared the litter of empty plastic sachets. They then waited all day and collected the new empties flung out of the shop. At Rs.11 per packet of arrack, the annual liquor spend came to Rs.12,00,000! Armed with this evidence the local Bhima Sangha confronted the adults, startling them into action. There has since been increasing control on arrack sales. The village panchayat is now working to make Nandroli liquor free.

7. Children in seven villages have produced a booklet listing chores and jobs they are happy to do and the ones they don’t want to. Among the latter: milking, beedi rolling, washing clothes and fetching water in pots.

8. 270 members of Bhima Sanghas between the ages of 8 and 18 carried out a comprehensive survey of 7,500 households in 24 villages, located in four districts of North Karnataka. With minimal assistance from adults, they designed the forms, trained the pollsters, collected data, sorted it and gave it for compilation. The survey covered profiles of all children in the target areas: their disabilities, education, work profiles, family links, problems, and so on. The survey that lasted a year from June 1998, yielded the data that Bhima Sanghas and Makkala Panchayats now work with, prioritising attention, targeting resources and planning ahead.

9. CWC runs a helpline called Makkala Sahaya Vani [MSV] through the toll free number 1098. MSV Bangalore logs 70 calls a day, handling complaints of abuse in schools, medical emergencies, child marriages etc. A transit shelter is now getting ready. MSVs are coming up in Udupi and Kundapur.

A generation after

It’s close to 25 years since Damu and Nandana began their battles on behalf of children. Nandana has played a key role in formulating UN’s policy on children’s rights. India, despite its difficulties with children related issues, has been a pioneer in raising awareness worldwide. Which is a lot more than you can say for a country like the USA, which till today refuses to sign the Convention for the Rights of Children. The very first meeting of the International Movement of Working Children was held in Kundapur, hosted by the local Bhima Sangha.

Bhima Sanghas’ 14,000 members have formed themselves into a federation. Since the birth of CWC, whole generations of children have become adults and they continue their involvement as members of the Makkala Sabha. So, the creep of children’s issues into adult consciousness is steady. In Udupi, Bellary and Sirsi districts’ panchayats labour of children below 14 years ended and all under this age go to schools now. Migration of child labourers from Udupi has ceased.

M Manjula, at 18, will soon be an adult. She has been a CWC-child for a decade. She is a leader that adults would envy. She is the President of the Karnataka state federation of Bhima Sanghas. She was duly elected after a keen contest, by an electoral college of 19 delegates. She has travelled to Geneva as a representative of India’s children. There was no culture shock or inhibitions in her. Nor any envy of the world she saw. Despite all difficulties endured in India, she’s a proud Indian who says that children here will soon have a better deal.

That would be because, some years before she was born, Damu saw the likes of her standing there – without hope.

(This article was taken from GoodNewsIndia is dedicated to little known stories of positive action and is published by D. V. Sridharan)

The Concerned for Working Children