Once passionate teachers, NCLP staff turn daily wagers as Centre shuts project
The project was closed without prior notice, so the former staff were left jobless; with families to support, they're taking up low-paying jobs
In December 2007, when V Ramakrishnan joined the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) as an educator in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, he was full of energy and enthusiasm. He would wake up at the break of dawn, get ready, and take a 30 km bus journey to Ekkalnatham, a village up the hill, before covering another 8 km on foot to reach NCLP’s special school.
If the students were not in the class by the time he was in, Ramakrishnan would cajole them out of their homes and sometimes from the cattle grazing grounds. At school, he would keep his classes, mostly basics, engaging so that the students develop an interest in studies.
After two years, these students would be enrolled in government schools and Ramakrishnan would introduce another batch of rehabilitated child labourers to formal education. He continued the practice for 15 years, becoming a proud mentor for many students who went on to obtain degrees and take up respectable jobs.
Project absorbed, staff forgotten
But today, Ramakrishnan, a masters and B.Ed degree holder, works as a loadman at construction sites and brick kilns in and around Krishnagiri district for meagre wages. This is because, on March 31, 2022, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment subsumed the NCLP under the School Education Department’s Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) without prior notice. And, it failed to rehabilitate NCLP staff.
So far, the ministry has not communicated to the state governments or the project directors about the status of the redundant staff.
The ministry, in its letter dated March 14, 2022, said: “The children enrolled at the special training centres (STCs) of NCLP scheme as 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 SSA. After mainstreaming the students, NCLP’s STCs would cease to be operational.”
The ministry did not specify what will happen to the teachers and other staff members under the project. Nor did it leave any instructions for the state governments to rehabilitate them.
Unpaid for months, teachers turn to menial jobs
According to data available on the Platform for Effective Enforcement for No Child Labour (PENCIL) portal, as many as 1,97,414 children were identified through the NCLP and 1,19,655 were sent back to schools across the country since the launch of the portal in 2017.
When the centres were shut, 44,275 students including 3,800 from Tamil Nadu were enrolled in special training centres in 312 districts across 21 states, according to PENCIL data. Close to 15,000 staffers, including teachers, vocational teachers, clerks and project directors, were working under the project across the country.
Under the project, teachers were paid ₹7,500 (₹7,000 from the Centre and ₹500 from the state government), cooks were paid ₹3,000 each, clerks ₹5,000, and peons ₹3,700.
“I have an eight-member family to feed. I can’t sit idle at home. I have to take up some job to support my family,” said Ramakrishnan. The former teacher said the ministry had withheld their salaries for 15 months even before the project closed, forcing employees to take loans to support their families.
“I would not have taken up the job at all or I would have found a better one if I’d had the slightest clue about the project’s closure. I worked hard during the pandemic even though our salaries were put on hold. Hoping that my salary would be released soon, I took huge loans to support my family. Now, I don’t know what to do. I feel so hopeless and depressed,” he said.
Another teacher, S Anitha, has been working as a farm help under the MGNREGA scheme for the past few months. As she gets work only for a couple of weeks in a month, she barely earns ₹2,500 per month, which is hardly enough to feed her family.
“My situation is so bad that I had to pawn my earrings to pay my children’s school fees. In my stint as a teacher, I have rescued so many child labourers and educated them. Now, I am afraid my own children would end up as child labourers,” she said.
Anitha urges the state government to accommodate NCLP staff like her in other government departments as she feels many who have crossed the prime of their age would find it impossible to compete with the younger generation for a decent job. “We are hopeful that the government would help us in some way or other,” she said.
Demand for rehabilitation
“We have been repeatedly requesting officials, both at the district level and the state level, to provide us with alternate employment opportunities, but we don’t know whether the government would consider us. Even if it considers, how long it will take to provide the jobs,” said K Siva Selvam, an NCLP employee.
Siva Selvam currently earns a living by working at construction sites as a daily wager for a pay of ₹700 per day, and the work is not regular.
Stating that it is impossible to run a family of four with that wage, Siva Selvam said that while he depends on government ration to feed his family, he has taken huge loans to pay the school fees of his children.
“We definitely cannot survive without the government’s help. The government should take immediate steps to provide us with some kind of alternative work in the government departments or in schools. We have made multiple representations and we are hopeful that they would pay attention to our request,” he said.
Many others like Siva Selvam have been visiting the district collector’s office and secretariat in Chennai to make representations, with a hope that their situation would change.
Will TN govt come to the rescue?
Not just in Tamil Nadu, NCLP staff across the country have been staging protests, condemning the Union government for closing the project without prior notice and leaving them in a lurch.
When contacted, a Tamil Nadu government official said the state government didn’t have much say in the matter as it was a Central government project. “The NCLP staff have made their representations to us. We will do what we can do,” the official added.