The future of 4,314 children who were rescued as child labourers, pursuing studies at special training centres functioning under the Union government’s National Child Labour Project in Tamil Nadu, is in the dark as the Centre has not released funds for the project from 2020-21 and not paid monthly stipend of ₹400 to the students for the past few years.
Project officials said they have not even received any written communication from the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment for the past two years, and are uncertain whether or not to continue running the centres. The Union government, which had been constantly extending the continuation of the project, chose not to do so after March 31, 2021.
If the government continues to ignore the issue, the project will eventually be shut down. That will lead to an increase in the number of child labourers in the state, which has already been grappling with more cases since the lockdown, activists said.
After the Tamil Nadu government reopened schools from Class 1 from November 1, most of the training centres also started functioning. There are around 225 centres in 15 districts, including Salem, Erode, Virudhunagar, Dharmapuri, Coimbatore and Tirupur. Children who are rescued as labourers undergo a two-year training at the centres before they are enrolled in nearby government schools. During the period, the central government is supposed to provide them a monthly stipend, while the state provides them uniform, books, footwear and mid-day meals.
A source in the project said: “Depending on the student and staff strength, the Union government would allocate ₹50-₹60 lakh per district every year and the funds would be disbursed in two instalments. For 2020-21, we received the first instalment. After that, not just fund disbursal, but also communications from the Union government stopped. We have been writing to them seeking funds and clarifications, but have not received any response till date.”
According to the ministry’s annual report, ₹110 crore was allocated towards the project in 2020-21, but only ₹7.4 crore was utilised till December 2020.
“Many of the centres are functioning in private buildings. Due to lack of funds, we have not been able to pay rent to the centres for the past couple of years and the building owners have been constantly asking us to vacate their premises. While some of us are convincing the building owners to provide some more time to pay the rent as the project is run for good cause, centres in certain districts, including Coimbatore, have been shut down. In certain districts like Salem, the district collector intervened and arranged a loan to manage the project expenses,” the source said.
Pointing out that staff and teachers have not been paid for the past couple of years, the source said they were worried that more teachers, who undergo extensive training, would leave the project.
One of the teachers said on condition of anonymity: “If the situation continues, not many of us will stay here. Even though the salary is just ₹7,000, our livelihood is dependent on it. How long can we afford to work without getting a salary?”
“But this is not the only problem that we face. Convincing the parents to send their wards to the centres itself has become a herculean task now after the government stopped paying the monthly stipend. We have no answers for the parents. Even though the amount would be credited directly in their bank account, some of them assume that we misappropriated it,” she said.
Pointing out that the trust between the teachers and parents has been severed, she said there are students who visit the centre only on certain days when they don’t find work.
“After all, stipend was one of the weapons we were using to lure the parents to send their children to schools and not to work,” she said.
“It has been years since the Union government has paid the monthly stipend to the students studying in the centres. Students in certain districts had been receiving it until two years ago, while in other districts the stipend has not been paid for some five years. We were told that stipend would be given only to those students who had a considerable attendance percentage and teachers were asked to mark attendance online every day. Initially there were some technical and practical issues. But even after the issues were resolved and teachers started marking attendance regularly, the stipend was not provided,” said the source.
SC Natraj, Director, Service Unit for Development Activities in Rural, an NGO that runs six centres in Erode district, put the ball in the Union government’s court.
“The rescued children will not be able to cope if they are put in mainstream schools and they will end up becoming labourers again. That’s why they are admitted in the training centres and special care is provided to them. The project, which was started after a proper study, now lacks even basic attention. It is not enough if government officials take pledge to eradicate child labour, they should work towards it,” he said.
“At a time when the ranks of child labourers have been increasing drastically in the state post lockdown, the priority of the government should have been the children. The need to protect the rights of children is now more than ever. Ideally, the government should have increased the funds allocated for the project and started the project in all districts,” said Andrew Sesuraj, state convener, Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch.
According to him, a study conducted by the Campaign Against Child Labour has revealed that the rate of child labour in the state has gone up considerably in recent times. He pointed out that India was signatory to the 1992 Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Meanwhile, a senior official from the Tamil Nadu labour department said they had written to the Union ministry about three months ago, both regarding the fund disbursal and student stipend. “The ministry had sought students’ details to pay the stipend and we in turn had sought details from the district collector,” the official said.