A train journey in the 2nd class compartment of a train heading to Salem felt like a reality check. I was brought back from my comfortable job in Bangalore to the real India where people have to struggle for basic day to day needs.
Little did I know that my notion of struggles of real India were soon to change.
After landing in Salem, I went to visit the project holders and community workers of the Salem People’s Trust (SPT). SPT’s primary focus is to release and rehabilitate child labour and bonded labour in the agricultural sector. Speaking to them made me realise the enormity of effort needed to make even a tiny change at the grassroots level. Their level of commitment is something we can only dream of. Due to the depth of the problem in marginalised communities, advocacy and spreading awareness is not sufficient to tackle the problem. The community workers have thus come up with a unique and laborious strategy of a personalised door to door campaign aimed at supporting victims when they are most vulnerable. The campaigns are aimed at preventing the problem even before it takes root.
They have divided large areas into smaller blocks and personally monitor the activities of individual households. They are aware of all the happenings in the household and interact with them on a one to one basis. They also make use of child collectives to gather information. For example, they counsel parents about the ill effects of child marriage and benefits of education right when their daughter hits puberty and they are looking to get her married. They counsel family against female foeticide as soon as a woman in the family is pregnant. The opportune timing of such interventions ensures that their impact is maximised.
We met children from the child collectives of the neighbourhood. The highlight of my day was a 6 year old boy. He told me about his rights as a child, of how he was entitled to survival, development, protection and participation. This might not seem like a big deal for us, who live with a feeling of entitlement, but in a community where generations have been living in oppression, this is a big step to ensure they fight for a life of dignity. The children of the collective showed us the various dramas and street plays they perform to spread awareness in the community.
Bonded labour is very prevalent in this district. A child could be working as a bonded labourer for years, toiling for 15-16 hours a day without any wages, just because his grandfather wasn’t able to repay Rs.300 taken as a loan from some landlord. Many families have accepted this as their way of life. They are content working without wages for the little food and shelter they get in return. They fear unemployment and the inability to provide for their families if they are no longer bonded labourers.
Casteism, poverty, illiteracy and child marriage are deeply interconnected in this community. Majority of the bonded labourers belong to backward castes. They are not paid wages hence they are pushed further into poverty. They are unable to educate their children and the cycle of illiteracy, poverty and bonded labour continues. The children of bonded labourers are vulnerable to sexual abuse by landlord since voice of bonded labourers is never heard. To prevent this, they often get their young underage daughters married. In their eyes it’s in the best interest of their daughter’s safety.
I was shocked when women who had participated in female foeticide told me they had done so because they used to believe that even a crippled boy would be better accepted than a girl. This was a manifestation of the deep seated patriarchy in the community. Girls grow up without knowing their worth and are easily oppressed into believing that men are superior. This issue has to be addressed at the grass root level, young girls have to be educated and empowered to fight for themselves and other women.
On the way back, we meet a few brink kiln workers. I was asked to pose as a woman from Mumbai who needed a domestic help. I was jarred when one of them agreed to sell her child to me for 50 thousand rupees. I angrily asked her how she could give away her child to a complete stranger. She said that this was in the best interest of her child as I was a fair skinned lady from the upper caste and would hence take good care of the child.
Even after 9 years of work in the development sector, this incident was an eye opener for me. It showed me how rampant the caste system was and also how people from the marginalized background hardly have any opportunities to improve their lives.
This visit made me realise how much impact CRY makes in the lives of the under privileged. It also showed me that a lot more needs to be done before we can proudly say that every citizen of our country lives a life of dignity. My resolve to do my job to the best of my ability and to ensure that no funding opportunity is missed has become much higher.
Sreemoyee Sharma, Employee, CRY on her first visit to a CRY supported project area.