Armed with a dedicated team of teachers and field staff, the National Child Labour Project has brought down the incidence of child labour in Coimbatore and Tirupur. Akila Kannadasan reports

The little boy hid behind the door of his home, saying ‘I’m not coming to school today. Go away.’ Tears streamed down his face. But, his teacher, K. Sudha, was undeterred. She peered through a gap in the door. He looked miserable. Sudha was determined to take him to school. She knew that if she left him there, he would take his sack and join his friends to pick scraps from the streets.

A teacher at the National Child Labour Project’s (NCLP) special training centre in M.S. Nagar, Tirupur, Sudha fights hard to make child labourers in her area study at their centre. She teaches 25 students, most of whom are children of scrap-pickers who live in temporary enclosures in the streets. “The adults leave home at dawn and return late at night. The kids are left to fend for themselves,” says Sudha. “They go in groups to pick scrap, like their parents.” Her job is to convince the kids and their parents to send them to school — a task that requires enormous strength.

Bridge schools

NCLP has 25 special training centres in Coimbatore and Tirupur. The centres serve as bridge schools where rescued child labourers are provided free education and a meal. The aim is to prepare the children to study in a regular school. They are trained here for a maximum of three years, after which they are admitted to a Government school. Each centre has a teacher who handles about 25 children.

It is the teacher who ultimately determines the success of the NCLP. For, she identifies the children to be trained at her centre, motivates them to study and ensures they continue school. But what makes this project special is that a lot of its teachers haven’t gone to college themselves.

About 50 teachers and field staff from Coimbatore and Tirupur participated in a three-day teachers’ training programme in the city recently. Clad in a synthetic sari, her hair well-oiled and braided, K. Chithra looks like the woman next door. Five words define her childhood: poverty; a drunkard-father and a harassed mother. She worked in a brick kiln for Rs.25 per day to pay for her school books. But, she didn’t make enough to pay for her college education. And so, she lived a closeted life, looking up to a male member of her family even to travel to a neighbouring village.

She is now a vocational teacher at NCLP. This is her first job and she reveres it. “I once spotted a girl peeling onions in her father’s tea shop. She was forced to drop out of school as her father had to look for a livelihood in a new town. We trained her temporarily and she scored 456 marks in her tenth standard exams!” she says with pride.

“Do you know how it feels if you can’t go to school when you yearn to study? I do,” says Kalaivani, 19. She worked in a tailoring unit to support her studies. A teacher with NCLP, she recalls how she would cringe when her friends asked her why she was sitting at home after finishing Class 12. “I proudly tell the world I’m a teacher now,” she beams.

Ruby from Sundarapuram was once a student at the NCLP’s training centre. Today, she teaches there. Shuba, Vijayakumari, Nirmala…every teacher with the NCLP speaks of how their job gives them strength and satisfaction.

An NCLP teacher’s day starts early; the first thing she does is count the heads in her school. If some students are missing, she visits them at home and talks them into coming to study. At times, a teacher waits at the door for a student to eat and get dressed; sometimes, she dresses up the student herself.

The students have to be handled with special care since many of them have a disturbed childhood. “Some use foul language. But we can’t blame them, they pick up the words from their parents,” says Malarvizhi. She teaches children of contract labourers who dig trenches for telephone lines.

But there is immense potential in them, says teacher Nirmala. “The kind of questions they come up with…they are very bright.”

The National Child Labour Project was initiated by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in 1988. Functional in 266 districts in the country, the Project aims to eradicate child labour. NCLP has a dedicated team in each district with the Collector as the chairman. The team regularly conducts enforcement drives to rescue child labourers aged between nine and 14, and admits them into their special training centres. The drives take place with support from various departments, including Health, Revenue and Police. “As the result of regular enforcement drives and the support of our Collector, we have brought down the incidence of child labour in our district,” says D.V. Vijaya Kumaar, project director, Coimbatore and Tirupur. But bringing about a change in the minds of parents of child labourers is not easy, he adds. “They tend to be ignorant about education. We need to counsel them patiently. Since poverty is the most commonly cited reason for child labour, we make the parents aware of Government schemes and subsidies and get them involved them with self-help groups.”