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Children's club takes the initiative to liberate child labourers

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DETERMINED LOT: Members of a children's club specially created by an NGO to rescue bonded child labourers in Gudiyatham, about 150 km from Chennai. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
DETERMINED LOT: Members of a children's club specially created by an NGO to rescue bonded child labourers in Gudiyatham, about 150 km from Chennai. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Ramya Kannan

It later helps those freed to go back to school The children go in groups, talk to parents, negotiate with factory supervisor, pay up money owed by the child's parents and obtain his/her release.

Vellore: At the foothills of the Mahadevan hills in Vellore district, where the rough hillock roll roughly into plains, a solemn meeting is on under the shade of a peepul tree. Well, as solemn as it can get when a bunch of giggly, hyperactive children sit together to discuss adult business.

M. Vanishree, president of children's club, reads out a declaration of independence of sorts and there is loud applause. She has, on behalf of the club, technically freed two children, Anbarasi and Surya, both 16 years old, from labour in the village. The two children, who expressed their willingness to go back to studying, approached the club, which went into the merits of the case and passed a resolution to take them out of work and put them back in school again.

Tip of iceberg

Anbarasi and Surya are the proverbial tip of the ice berg. In Chinthakanavai, about 12 km from Gudiyatham, the children's club has taken on the task of retrieving child labourers and bonded children from their bondage. The count is nine. The children go in groups, talk to the parents, negotiate with the factory supervisor, pay up the amount owed by the child's parents and obtain his/her release.

In the characteristic sincerity and matter-of-factness of childhood, Vanishree says, "We are studying. All children should be given the opportunity to study." And Illavarasi, president of the second children's club in the village, says, "I was a labourer too. I know what it means to go to the match factory and work till your palms crack up with stacking matches. It is not good for children to be there."

The children have also, with their collective savings, mobilised a thousand rupees to pay the owner of a match factory so that Kalpana could stop chaffing her palms at work.

"I am so glad now. My parents could not afford to send me to school, so they borrowed Rs. 1,000 from the private match factory owner and sent me to work there," Kalpana, emboldened by her recent freedom, says. "It is terrible there. I had to climb up three floors, carrying loads of matchsticks. I used to feel weak and they would abuse us if we slowed down. We had only 10 minutes to eat lunch."

Veda Nayagam, World Vision co-ordinator in the area, says gross unemployment, extreme poverty and the lack of proper access to schools force the children into a clearly hazardous trade. There is only one town bus service in the morning that runs between the village and the school and is crowded. "Our parents do not want girls to take this bus. They think it is not safe. So we drop out and go to the match factory in a bus that the company sends," Illavarasi explains.

Matches dabbed with phosphorous often ignite in the friction caused by rubbing them together a procedure unavoidable in the process. Since children have nimble fingers that allow them to be good at the stacking galleys and they can be paid very little, they are hired by match-making factories.

There are many more children in the factories in Gudiyatham town, Vanishree says, as she firms up her small jaw, determined that the club would, at some point of time, free them all.

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