It is a scorcher of a day at Gudiyatham village in Vellore. The children are gathered under a huge tree for a game but their sudden silence tugs at the heart. It appears they can't forget the trauma they went through around the same time last year when they rolled 'beedis' (indigenous cigarettes made from leaf rolls filled with tobacco) or match sticks for a living. Until last year they were children without a childhood. Pledged to agents and 'beedi' unit owners by their parents to pay off loans, these children know the anguish of being bonded labor.
Today, V. Sekhar, 11, and S. Prabhu, 10, are in a transit school getting ready for proper school. Sekhar's simple statement sums up his painful past: "They allow us to play here." Nandini, 16, now uses her nimble fingers to learn tailoring while C. Mohana Priya, 17, types away at a computer in his new class. The children's new-found liberation is courtesy the NGO World Vision and the village women under the Federation of Self Help Groups in an area called Kalangiyam.
It is a parched land here that forces people - the landless poor in particular - to pin their hopes and lives on the leather, 'beedi' and match making factories in and around the area. What makes it even more pathetic is that many of them sell their children into bonded labor for as little as Rs 500 (US$1=Rs 41). "Working long hours in a stifled atmosphere, many adults are afflicted with respiratory diseases. Hit with a sudden medical emergency, they have no way of borrowing money for treatment and end up pledging the labor of their children as collateral for fast cash," explains Moses Palmer, Programme Manager, World Vision. Some of these children remain bonded for years, with the family is unable to pay back the money.
Take the case of Prabhu, 11, who became a bonded laborer two years back when his parents had to borrow Rs 5,000 from an agent for his father's treatment. The agent made young Prabhu roll 'beedis' until the money and interest were paid off. Like other bonded child labor, Prabhu was given only one third of the wages due to him, and made to work well past dusk. But that was not all. Prabhu had to do all the chores the 'beedi' unit owner ordered him to do - whether it was to pick up something from the grocery shop or clean the owner's house. But perhaps Prabhu was better off than his female counterparts, many of whom could be sexually exploited - a fact that goes largely unreported.
In 1990, when World Vision happened to conduct a medical camp for the villagers, a child whose legs had been chained was brought to the camp. For the visiting officials, the information that this was just one of the many children living in bonded labour was a shock. The organization responded by paying off the money to free the children. However, realizing that action was actually needed from within the community, they got the women of the community to step in. "We decided that women and children could be effective, especially if the women acquired economic independence," says Palmer. As a consequence, many women in the area were helped to organize themselves into SHGs.
So, from sheer unemployment and rolling 'beedis' or packing matchstick boxes, the rural women were able to avail of bank loans and engage in small-time activities like running a petty shop, selling rice or milking goats. As a result, the women now make anywhere above Rs 2,000 per month and can supplement the family income. They no longer have to go to moneylenders or push their children into bonded labor.
"If we hadn't become entrepreneurs ourselves and learnt to earn money, our children, too, would have fallen victim some day to bonded labor," admits Govindammal, 46, who runs a small rice business and is president of Kalangiyam.
"There are some families who still don't understand this, and see their children as earning machines. We are trying to convince them," says Rajeshwari, 47, the current joint secretary of Kalangiyam.
The empowered Kalangiyam women and some children, who have a good idea of which of their peers are still held in bondage, go about meeting agents and unit owners. There are said to be around 50 units in these villages. Often the units are just a cramped room in a house.
The federation has been instrumental in securing the release of 644 children. "Now, we just walk up to the unit owners and tell them that child labor is banned under the law (Child Labor Prohibition & Regulation Act, 1986). We are taken more seriously now," says V. Kasthuri, 32, another member of Kalangiyam SHG. "Earlier, we used to collect money to pay off the loan taken by the child's parents to free the child," she adds. The money to pay off the loan and often the exorbitant rate of interest - some times as high as 36 per cent per month - was taken from the SHGs and willing members of the community.
Not only do the women identify and rescue child workers, they try to get the children enrolled in school as well. The freed children are put in transit schools and later sent to regular schools. Women of Kalangiyam also identify vulnerable children from target villages and give them books and other educational materials to ensure they don't drop out. They conduct tuition classes, help children take up higher education and secure better jobs.
There is, of course, a great deal more work to be done. Rumors abound that about 500 children in the area are still trapped in child labor. But the Kalangiyam women are not giving up. They are determined to secure the future for these children.