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Classrooms at the grassroots

Pramila Bhargava is all set to launch her practical workbook on child labour. "The Elimination of Child Labour" is not a fanciful pipedream, but an account of a dream that came true for thousands and can come true for millions more. ANJANA RAJA N reports... .

WE HAVE grown so used to maligning the Government for its shortcomings and the bureaucracy for behaving like lords of the manor, that it is a pleasant surprise to come across a civil servant who is willing and capable of getting down on all fours to do some hard work at the grassroots level. Not that everybody joining the civil services is devoid of the spirit of service, but those who are full of it are definitely rare. What makes that spirit particularly inspiring in Pramila H. Bhargava, an officer in the Indian Railways Personnel Services since 1989, is its crisp coating of efficiency, command and a practical approach.

Awaiting the release of her book - Sage Publications' "The Elimination of Child Labour: Whose Responsibility" - by Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat at a ceremony next week, the seasoned bureaucrat is as full of memories of the assignment that led to this book as she is of the present work that keeps her Baroda House office buzzing and finds her issuing verbal instructions at the pace of a high speed cross-country train.

In 1999, 10 years into her career, this independent young woman who had always yearned to "tread new ground and achieve something other than the routine and ordinary," found herself on deputation as a consultant to a UNDP-sponsored poverty alleviation programme in a severely poverty stricken area of Andhra Pradesh. Her brief was to study the conditions of child labour in two mandals of the State. Soon becoming the project officer in charge of implementing her suggestions, she found the work gruelling.

"Here, I have a gaddi," she says frankly, contrasting the battery of staff and facilities her Delhi posting provides with being totally alone to take care of all work from stenography to implementation.

It was some consolation to put 900 children - employed in agriculture, stone quarrying and cottage industries - through the Government's two-month bridge course designed to help weak students negotiate the mainstream school system and later have them admitted to regular Government schools, but the older children, unable to reconcile with sharing a classroom with those much younger than themselves, tended to drop out of school. They needed residential hostels, but her budget of Rs 8 lakh allowed her to do little more than open bridge courses in every village. The infrastructure seemed just not forthcoming, till well-wishers convinced her to maximise her potential with the power of her own positive approach.

A turning point came when Sathya Sai Baba sent workers to construct a hostel. Finding an old disused shed and getting permission to use it, the work was completed in 20 days. This success convinced Pramila Bhargava that with the Government's help her plans could be implemented even more efficiently. This was when she formulated the policy that the optimum manner of working for the elimination of this vast problem was for NGOs, private bodies and the Government to work together.

The culmination of this effort was three residential hostels and 53 running bridge catering to 2120 children. The work has been up and running for nearly three years now, despite her transfer to other places. Referring to them all as "my children", their intelligence, happiness and success at covering several classes' work in the space of a few months brings tears to the eyes of one who "did not even cry at my wedding."

Having pledged the earnings from the book towards the children for further funds for their education, she hopes through its highly practical approach with worksheets, formats and detailed data, to "wake up the Government and NGOs" to the imminent possibility of success in unity.

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