Three boys at the Tehatta water project site. Picture by Saurav Bhattacharyya
Tehatta, March 15: A panchayat in Nadia thinks it is okay to allow schoolboys to work, otherwise their families would starve.
Around 50 children, absenting themselves from school, have been found toiling in Nadia’s Tehatta for a state government project, work for which is being done under the Centre’s flagship 100-day rural job scheme NREGA.
Two of them — 12-year-old Sanjay Samanta and 11-year-old Anil Ghosh (names changed because they are minors) — study in Class VII and VI, respectively.
They were found digging the earth to make a jheel (a water body) over an area of about an acre in Chakbehari village under the chief minister’s showpiece Jal Dharo, Jal Bharo project, a water-conservation drive.
The project is being executed by Tehatta’s Hanspukuria panchayat, where the pradhan thinks the families would starve if the children were not allowed to work.
Sandhya Biswas, the pradhan of Hanspukuria panchayat, said: “I know that engaging children in labour is prohibited, but we are compelled to allow them to work. Otherwise, their families would starve. Most of the fathers of these children are ill and they depend largely on the little income of their wards or wife.”
Child rights activists The Telegraph spoke to gave both sides of the argument. While some said forcing children to go to work when they should be in school could not be allowed, one development researcher said the situation on the ground showed that such a government job scheme was not enough to address the problem of poverty. Food security would have to be ensured as well.
The project in Tehatta was conceived by subdivisional officer Sudipto Bhattacharjee with two objectives. First, to use the water of the proposed jheel to decompose jute plants for the extraction of fibre. The jute plants are usually left in the Jalangi river, which pollutes the water.
Second, to use the water at other times of the year for pisciculture.
But Bhattacharjee did not bargain for the average age of the workers.
For about a month, these students have been bunking school for the “mati kata (digging)” job every morning at 8.30am. “The job continues for over four hours so that a worker can complete his daily quota of digging 100 cubic feet of earth,” said a panchayat official.
By the time their quota of digging gets over, it’s too late for Sanjay and Anil to go to school.
None of the children is officially enrolled for the work. They have been working on behalf of their fathers, who are the official job card-holders. The fathers are busy elsewhere to earn extra money.
Sanjay, a student of Class VII in a local school, said: “My father is busy in the paddy fields. He told me to work here so that he gets Rs 148 more per day.”
His father Niren (name changed) is a farm labourer.
Niren said: “I have not been keeping well for the past few days. I sent my son to work as classes in his school were irregular because of the Madhyamik.”
Sanjay is unhappy that he has to miss school. “I want to go to school, but it is too late to attend classes when the work ends,” he said.
His workmate Anil, who studies in a Tehatta school, has a similar story. His father Sushanta (name changed), the actual job card-holder, needs to do other work, ironically, to provide for the education of his son.
“My father urged the panchayat officials to allow me to work as his substitute and the panchayat officials agreed,” Anil said.
BJP pradhan Sandhya Biswas said when the families came to her, she was in a dilemma. “This put us in a dilemma, and ultimately we considered their plea when they approached me.”
SDO Bhattacharjee said he was against allowing the children to work. “Under no situation should children be engaged in labour. If the panchayat officials have allowed it, they have done it illegally, violating child labour laws. This cannot be accepted.”
It is illegal under the Child Labour (Protection and Regulation) Act, 1986, to allow children below 14 to work.
Bhattacharjee said he was not aware that children were working under the project. “Now I will definitely ensure that these children can go to school regularly and their fathers join the work,” he added.
Aveek Bhattacharya, senior manager, media advocacy (east), of child rights organisation Cry, said it was “not the responsibility of children to ensure the social and economic well-being of their families”.
“This is a violation of child rights, as well as the right to education. Children working is no excuse. The government should ensure the livelihood of the family. If it cannot ensure that, the same government should not talk about children’s free and compulsory education till 14. “Mati kata is a hazardous job and children even if above 14, should not be involved in it,” he said.
Raghab Bandyopadhyay, an author who has written extensively on rural Bengal, said: “It is true that children help out their families during holidays in many developed countries and it is accepted socially. But this is a gross violation of child rights, because here the priority is the family and its wellbeing, adults’ problems, not the children.
“As for the panchayat, its work is empowerment of the disadvantaged. Here it is doing the opposite. It is the opposite of that they are ensuring. They are acting like benevolent dadas. This raises a question on the role of the panchayat.”
But Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhuri, a research and programme associate with the Calcutta Research Group which works on development, saw it differently.
“It is apparent that 100 days’ work is not sufficient, so children are being pressed into work. But there is a grey area here. If the children are stopped, what are they going to eat? So it boils down to the question of food security. In economic terms, if there is demand, there will be supply. The 100 days’ work must have limitations, maybe through lack of steady payment, or another kind of corruption. But if there is no alternative, such a situation will persist,” she said.
“We have to think of food security, proper disbursement of funds and raising awareness.”
Ranabir Samaddar, a social scientist who is the director of the Calcutta Research Group, said: “Child labour in a way is a bizarre idea in our country. The abolition of child labour is a Utopian concept. In our country, only education does not work and labour is not bad in itself.”
He cautioned: “This is not to support child labour, but when only 100 days’ work is provided, how will a poor farmer run his family for the rest of the year? In this case, children have to pitch in. If a panchayat allows that, kudos to the panchayat. Shram (labour) and shiksha (education) can co-exist.”
“Perhaps the government should issue the card in the name of a family, allowing different members to work at different times. Besides, we have to remember that whatever policy the government issues, people will adapt it in their lives in their own way. The same has happened with the NREGA. The government should probably provide additional impetus to ensure NREGA reforms,” Sammadar added.