Thousands of children and their parents in villages across Andhra Pradesh have so much to thank Dr. Shantha Sinha for. She fought against child labour by getting children into schools and ensuring they got an education. A winner of many awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2003, Dr. Shantha Sinha credits her volunteers for their magnanimity.

About a decade ago, Parigi and other mandals in Mahabubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh were known for child labour. Girl children, in particular, went to cotton farms. Toiling hard from daybreak to midnight for a paltry sum and a glass of buttermilk, the young girls were forced to leave schools and work in harsh conditions. Some succumbed to pesticides as they were enrolled in these “farm badi” (farm environments simulated as schools with intervals, school bells and award) using superstitions to convince hapless parents.

Enter the Bridge schools, high impact awareness campaign run by Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation — popularly known as MV Foundation — and the sheer determination of one woman Dr. Shantha Sinha.

Soon schools were abuzz with students and it was back to school and a happy childhood for the voiceless children out here in the remote region. Talking to the poor parents on the one hand and mobilising multi media support on the other, it was a tedious yet successful effort by Dr. Sinha and her volunteers camping in the villages.

Today, thanks to her, 800 villages in Ranga Reddy district have successfully achieved 99 per cent enrolment and retention of children till Std. X. Organisations such as CRY, Tatas, HIVOS and European Commission have come forward to render support to the cause.

A source of inspiration for many, Dr. Sinha, who is currently chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), was awarded the Padmashri in 1998 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2003 in recognition of her efforts.

She is also the founder of MV Foundation (which is named in memory of her grandfather Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah).

“My experience in MV Foundation helped me largely in my role as chairperson of NCPCR. The overall objective of the Commission is to ensure that all laws, policies, programmes and administrative mechanisms are in consonance with the Child Rights perspective as enshrined in the Constitution of India and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. MV Foundation had been the beginning of my endeavour to fight against child labour and NCPCR gave me a wider perspective which was more challenging. A whole gamut of issues opened up and I got the larger picture,” opined Dr. Sinha.

Bonded labour

As director of Shramik Vidya Peeth where she was involved with bonded labour, Dr. Sinha realised that 40 per cent of the bonded labourers were children. At Shramik Vidya Peeth the focus was on adult labour and during that time, there was no agency that was working exclusively for the welfare of children.

Dr. Shantha Sinha's family trust, founded after her grandfather, was involved in giving scholarships to students. Dr. Sinha took up the issue of child labour under the family trust. And thus, began the journey of MV Foundation.

“Dr. Sinha is a role model for many of us. She is responsible for effectively motivating 80,000 volunteers. She gives space to all and a platform to everyone to voice their opinion,” says Arvind Kumar, Documentation and Research Co-ordinator, MV Foundation.

“My family was very supportive and hence could take up the challenge of rescuing children. Since a majority of children were Dalits, initially a lot of resistance came from the upper castes. The children and their families were threatened; our volunteers too faced threats. Slowly and steadily we overcame the pressure and in due course we began to focus on girl children. We also realised that children from all communities were deprived and our strategy was concentrated towards changing the mindset of the people. We tried to explain to people how education is important for a child's mental and physical growth. This focus helped a lot. It all started from Ranga Reddy district and today around 6,000 villages across Andhra Pradesh are a part of the initiative, having gained momentum in diverse geographical, political and cultural terrains,” said Dr. Sinha.

Today the staff at MV Foundation has gained expertise and is actively involved not only in Andhra Pradesh but across the country. Having dealt with complexities in Andhra Pradesh, the staff is able to efficiently overcome challenges across Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan and other States as well, says Dr. Sinha.

“I have worked with MV Foundation for 18 years now. I admire Dr. Sinha's non-hierarchical approach. It is commendable the way she respects everyone and allows everyone to voice their opinion,” says R. Venkat Reddy, National Convenor, MV Foundation.

A teacher herself

Dr. Shantha Sinha also served as a faculty member of the department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad.

“Being in the university was an advantage, and helped in development and institutionalising. On the other hand my theories in the university came from the practical experience I gained working for MV Foundation,” confides Dr. Sinha.

Every successful effort begins with the first step and a focussed leader.

Dr. Shantha Sinha's dedication to her work and the drive to help her team realise the big vision for change is what every volunteer vouches for. “As a person Dr. Sinha is very fair and gives everyone equal status. I have been associated with MV Foundation for 12 years and I have learnt a lot from her. I am in awe of her dedication towards her mission,” says Dhananjay, Training Co-ordinator, MV Foundation.

“When you enjoy doing something it becomes a passion and you don't treat it like a job that needs to be dealt with. I have always enjoyed doing what I do; be it at NCPCR today or what I did at MV Foundation sometime back…or my role as a professor in the university; I am very passionate about my work. I have always tried to get totally involved with my work and the people I work with. My idols have been my volunteers. It is amazing to see their level of involvement and dedication, their capacity to be generous and magnanimous,” says a humble Dr. Sinha.

A visit to any of the villages in Ranga Reddy today will find beaming children going for higher education with gratitude to the lady from the city who made their freedom a reality.