The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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I have a dream, a hope for the future

Ashia is about four feet tall and reed thin. The 12-year-old loves to sing and go to school. Till about two years ago, she used to make biris for a living, rarely receiving one decent meal a day.

The youngster has a dream, to be something when she grows up. But Ashia is reluctant to say aloud what she wants, for she knows the harsh truth of reality --- her dreams may never come true. Less than three months ago, she picked up a crayon for the first time. Ashia loves to depict nature, but dark colours dominate her works.

She's not the only one. Ruksana's family is too poor to even provide adequate winter clothing for the child --- the 10-year-old wears a tattered dress with no buttons. She used to make biris, too, before she started school. Her parents earn a living by doing that, while she does the housework every day ' washing, cleaning, shopping and looking after her younger siblings. Ruksana, too, will not admit what her hope for the future is, only nodding when asked if she has dreams.

In August 1994, the Centre announced the National Child Labour Programme (NCLP). The aim was to make children go to school by paying the families Rs 100 per child per month, as well as giving a free meal to the kids. In 1995-96, around 40 such schools were set up in North 24-Parganas under the Society for the Welfare of Child Labour with the district magistrate (DM) as chairman.

Ashia is a student of Ghuni Laskarpara Child Labour Welfare School in Rajarhat, where, like the other schools in the district, around 50 students in the nine-14 age group are given initial training before many of them make it to mainstream schools or madarsas. From October-end last year, the NGO Prayasam began the three-month Crayons' Cry project to bring a little colour and creativity into the young lives.

Six volunteers, housewives and mothers, signed up to help the youngsters discover the joys of expressing themselves through art and find their hidden talents. The results of the kids' efforts will be on display at Bharatiyam, in Salt Lake, on January 14 and 15. The exhibition will include drawings, collages, letters, clay models, cane handicrafts, singing and poetry reading by the NCLP students.

'Initially, the children only used black. They slowly discovered colour, and with the joy and pride in their work, the attendance of the kids in school increased. The DM, Manoj Panth, and director of the child labour project, Nilanjan Shandilya, have been very supportive of the programme. They want us to extend Crayons' Cry,' said a Prayasam spokesperson.

Some of the school's students have gone on to do better than biri-making, from the school where the seating arrangement is limited to worn gunny sacks on the floor and Classes II, III and IV are split into groups in one room with brick walls. Rabia's older sister is now a kindergarten teacher, while the 12-year-old wants to be a doctor. But although Rabia has an excellent singing voice, her teacher Bina Mondal says poverty will prevent any formal training.

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