Child labourers may be left in the lurch as Centre shuts down NCLP scheme
Winding down the NCLP at a time when child labour is rising due to the pandemic could be a disastrous move
K Dinesh Babu is employed as an accounts manager in a textile export company in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur district. He constructed a house recently, married off his sister and is taking care of his aged parents. He would not have achieved all of this if the volunteers from the Central government’s National Child Labour Project (NCLP) had not rescued him from an exploitative job at a textile firm in Tirupur about 18 years ago, where he was working for a daily wage of ₹100.
“I always wanted to go to school and study like my friends,” he recalled while speaking to The Federal. “I had to drop out of school and started working in a textile company when I was just 10 years old. My family was struggling financially and even the ₹100 that I earned mattered.”
Reminiscing how he was rescued from the mill by NCLP volunteers, he said they kept in touch with him even after he completed the course at the NCLP’s special training centre. “They helped me not just to complete my school studies, but also to enrol in the course of my choice at a private college. In fact, they paid my college fee for one semester,” he said.
Even now, the NCLP project director in Coimbatore often calls and checks on him. “He asks me how I am doing and always insists that I should reach out to him for any assistance. He also asks me to pursue higher studies,” added Dinesh Babu.
Sharing a similar story, Amsaveni, an employee of a reputed e-publishing house, said NCLP volunteers had saved her life. “Meeting the NCLP volunteers was a life-changing moment for me. Without them, I would not have reached the position that I am in now and I would not have been able to take care of my parents,” she said.
Sending children back to school
Dinesh and Amsaveni are just two of the 1.17 lakh students from Tamil Nadu who were rescued as child labourers and made to resume their education with the intervention of the NCLP, which has been functioning since 1988. According to data available on the Platform for Effective Enforcement for No Child Labour (PENCIL) portal, as many as 1,97,414 were identified through NCLP and 1,19,655 students were put back in schools across the country from 2017 till now.
At present, 44,275 students, including 3,800 from Tamil Nadu, are enrolled in special training centres (STCs) run by NCLP at 312 districts across 21 states, according to the portal.
But, unfortunately, this central government project will no longer be coming to the aid of child labourers like Dinesh and Amsaveni and transforming their lives. This is because the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment has decided to subsume the project under the Education Department’s Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).
No more extensions
In a letter dated March 14, 2022, the Ministry said the project had approval for continuation up to March 31, 2020, and this was extended to March 31, 2021. However, it did not get any further extension. The NCLP has been told to place the children in government schools or in STC’s run under the SSA. The letter made no mention of why the project did not get approval for continuation.
“The children enrolled at the special training centres (STCs) of NCLP scheme on March 31, 2021, should be mainstreamed in schools and children enrolled in STCs after March 31, 2021 should either be mainstreamed to schools or shifted to STCs functioning under the SSA,” said the letter. “After mainstreaming the students, NCLP’s STCs would cease to be operational.”
Directing the state government to continue identifying and rescuing child labour as per the Child Labour and Adolescents (Prohibition and Regulations) Act, 1986, the letter also said that the rescued child labourers should be mainstreamed through SSA either directly to the schools or through STCs operated under the SSA scheme in the respective districts.
The ministry also directed the project officials to update the NCLP students’ details, including their bank particulars, on the portal before March 31, 2022 to enable the release of their ₹400 monthly stipend. The NCLP has further been asked to submit relevant documents that will allow the Centre to release funds that have not been given to the project for the past two years.
A disaster, say officials
The discontinuation of the project is being viewed as a disaster by the NCLP officials. Speaking to The Federal on condition of anonymity, one of the NCLP project directors said: “The move to wind up the project which has been functioning specifically for the welfare of the child labourers at this point, when their numbers are increasing considerably due to the financial instability caused by the COVID pandemic, is disastrous. The move will not just reverse the progress made by the project in the last few decades, but also, in the worst case scenario, defeat the purpose of establishing the project itself.”
Subsuming the project under the SSA is not likely to be effective because, unlike the NCLP, whose only work is to identify, rescue and rehabilitate the child labourers, SSA has multiple tasks assigned to it, such as working with special children. In fact, many times, SSA officials sought their assistance to identify school dropouts, the official added.
“At the NCLP STCs, we provide them with a bridge course for two years. Besides teaching them a school syllabus, we also provide them with special care as they will be undergoing a lot of stress back home. I don’t know whether such special attention will be given at the centres run by SSA,” said another official, pointing out that there are no SSA centres in the districts where the NCLP project is active.
Harmful for children and teachers
Putting the children directly in the schools along with other children will also turn out to be harmful for the children and the teachers because the rescued children will not be unable to adjust to the school environment without special attention. Teachers will also have to work hard to make them comfortable, said the officials.
“Even after the students were placed in mainstream institutions, our volunteers were following up with them for at least six months to ensure that they do not drop out of school again. But, we don’t know whether such a follow-up will be possible by SSA staff,” one of the officials said.
Ideally, the project should be closed in a district only if the district is declared as a no-child labour zone and, for this move, a resolution should be passed at the panchayat level during the Gram Sabha. Then, the resolution should be verified at least by following it up for six months, the official said, adding they don’t know how the project was shut down at such a short notice.
C Natraj, Director, Service Unit for Development Activities in Rural (SUDAR), an NGO that runs six centres in Erode district, said that unlike the regular schools, the NCLP volunteers would visit the houses of each student and bring them to a STC.
“They would convince the parents to send their children to the centres. Such care will not be available for the rescued students at the regular schools. Also, retaining the students at the schools without special attention is not an easy task. As a result, the dropout ratio would further increase and in turn would lead to an increase in the numbers of child labourers,” said Natraj.
Ideally, this is the time when the government should be working to strengthen the project because child labourers have increased three-fold in Tamil Nadu, according to a survey conducted by the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) in 24 districts a few months back, he added.
State government intervention sought
Seeking the intervention of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin in this issue, Natraj said that if the Centre refuses to resume the project, the state government should step forward to allocate funds and run it.
Explaining that the letter makes no mention of the NCLP staff, another NCLP official said that the staff including teachers have been working for months together without being paid a proper salary. The Centre has not released funds for almost two years and there is a lack of clarity about what would happen to them, said the NCLP official.
A senior official from the state labour department, when contacted by The Federal, acknowledged the issue but refused to comment further.