Genesis of Shaishav
It is a little over a decade since Shaishav took its first tentative steps in Bhavnagar. The founders of the organisation, Parul Sheth and Falgun Sheth, moved to the city in June 1994. Falgun came with 14 years of experience of working with SEWA-Rural in Jagadia, and Disha in Ahmedabad. Parul had worked for six years with SPARC (Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centre) in Mumbai, with SEWA-Rural, and with Chetna in Ahmedabad on such issues as housing, health, and gender.
Although Shaishav was formally registered on April 27, 1993, a preparatory period followed. During this time, Parul and Falgun worked in Ahmedabad and went through a process of introspection and discussion to clarify their objectives, proposed activities, and organisational structure. In 1992, Falgun had also begun working with the then recently constituted nationwide Campaign Against Child Labour. His links with CACL helped to clarify Shaishav’s rights-based approach. By the time Falgun and Parul moved to Bhavnagar, they had decided to primarily work on child rights, especially focusing on child labour.
The rationale behind the decision of working with children is the belief that they are the foundation of any society. If every child is given the opportunity, as a right, to fully develop its potential, this will make for a more egalitarian society. At both the individual and social level, it is cost-effective to work with children. At an early age, the capacity to learn is at a peak. The impact is longer-lasting because children will live on in society and the impact will live with them, leading to more sustained social change. Children are not set in their ways and they are less infiltrated by social cynicism. They are not likely to discriminate unless socialised to do so and if they are reached before such negative processes of socialisation solidify, social change is more likely and more effective. In any adverse situation, children are also the worst affected: these may be situations such as natural disasters or social locations. Moreover, children tend to be the most neglected group also because they are politically powerless; they are not a constituency with a voice.
The Indian Context
It is difficult to precisely quantify child labour in India, partly because a lot of the labour occurs in the unorganised sector and therefore not registered. The estimated number of child labourers in India has varied between 20 million and more than 100 million. The high number of working children is not in line with the legal framework aimed at protecting them.
A child labourer is understood in the field of child rights activism as any child below 18 years of age who is involved in any work, either remunerative or non-remunerative, which hampers her/his physical, mental, social, intellectual and spiritual growth, as well as violates her/his basic rights to education, health, and development. In India The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (1986) secures the rights of the child by making several forms of child labour illegal. Constitutional provisions also guarantee rights to the child. For example, Article 24 of the Constitution prevents children under 14 from working in “hazardous employment”. Article 39 (e) and (f) makes it the duty of the State to ensure that children are not forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age, and that children are given opportunities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. Article 45 promises that the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children till the age of 14. More recently, the 93rd Amendment (2001) and the Right to Education Act (2005) states the fundamental right to free and compulsory education for children aged 6-14.
Numerous international conventions, drafted by the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations, that India has signed, protect children from labour and aim to secure the rights of the child. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), for example, emphasises the right of the child to live in a spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, and solidarity. It also emphasises that children are entitled to special care and assistance. The rights outlined in this document are separated into four main categories:
- Survival Rights – These cover the right to life and the right to the highest standard of health and medical care attainable.
- Protection Rights – These include protection from discrimination, from abuse and neglect, protection for children without families and protection for refugee children.
- Development Rights – These include all kinds of education (formal and non-formal) and the right to a standard of living that is adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.
- Participation Rights – These cover the right of a child to express her/his views in all matters affecting that child.
The Bhavnagar Context
Bhavnagar city and district is situated in the region of Saurashtra in southwest Gujarat. When Shaishav started in Bhavnagar, the population was around 400,000 (Census of India 1991). Presently the population is around 500,000 (Census of India 2001). The development of heavy industry in the city is limited, but informal, small scale industries proliferate in the low income areas. The main industries are diamond polishing, plastic rope making, weaving and recycling and recycling of scrap from Alang ship breaking yard, 50 kilometres away. The region is a drought prone area, so migrants come to the city to find seasonal work or settle permanently.
The Shaishav founders chose Bhavnagar, a city neither knew too well, mainly because at the time no organisation in Saurashtra was consistently working on issues related to less privileged children. At the outset, no data existed on the number of child workers in Bhavnagar. The city was also once a centre of learning and home to some of the eminent educationists in the country.
A preliminary observation over three months in mid-1994 estimated the number of child workers in Bhavnagar to be more than 8,000. A more detailed survey followed from January to April 1995. This was done with financial as well as administrative help of SPARC. Volunteers combed the city trying to establish the number of child workers. The survey counted 12,813 children below 18 working in Bhavnagar. Of these, 37 percent were girls, and 63 percent boys. As many as 58 percent earned less than Rs. 500 per month and up to 60 percent worked for 8 to 12 hours every day. Out of the total number of children included in the survey, 68 percent had never been to school. From among 32 percent who had attended school, about 80 percent children had left before they reached 7th standard. The ratio of literate male to female child workers was 2:1. This was the largest study done by any grass-root organisation in India and the findings become the premises to plan our strategy and programmes.
In March-April 1996, a sample survey was done in collaboration with PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia), a Delhi-based organisation. This study sought to understand the occupational hazards and effects of labour on children’s health. It found children in 106 different kinds of work in Bhavnagar, identified 17 occupations that were hazardous to children. The study randomly identified 227 children in Bhavnagar doing hazardous work to determine the health hazards they encountered. The occupations included tasks related to diamond polishing, plastic industries, construction work, in iron re-rolling mills, making incense sticks and work in tea and food stalls.
Approaching the Field
To clarify their ideas of how to work with children, the Shaishav founders discussed the data from the surveys at a workshop with educators, child rights activists and others, both from Bhavnagar and beyond. This was in keeping with their principle of involving the community in social issues. After some deliberation, they decided to make Kumbharwada the centre of Shaishav’s work. This area, to the northeast of the city, is the biggest slum in Bhavnagar. Of the 12,813 working children counted in the survey, at least 3,000 either worked or lived in this area.
The organisation’s earliest activity was a vacation camp in mid-1995 at the Kumbharwada Circle Municipal School. During vacation, child labour rises: seasonal work such as making sugarcane juice or selling toys is available and children tend to drop out of school. The eight-week, four-hours a day camp for about 300 children was primarily an exercise in retention. Local volunteers supported Shaishav by facilitating study and play activities for children. The impact was evident in Kumbharwada: local leaders appreciated Shaishav’s attempts and parents became familiar with the work of the fledgling organisation. A few children, on the verge of dropping-out, re-enrolled in school. Shaishav thus made its first concrete and successful intervention on the long road to ensuring child rights.