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'All out-of-school children must be considered child labour': Shamshad Khan

By Rashme Sehgal

Winner of Outlook magazine's Best Social Worker of the Year award, Shamshad Khan, director of the Centre for Rural Education and Development Action, is on a mission: to rescue and rehabilitate young children working in the Mirzapur-Bhadohi carpet belt in Uttar Pradesh

The Centre for Rural Education and Development Action (CREDA) started in 1982 as a small pre-primary education centre for boys, under a peepul tree in a harijan settlement near Allahabad. It began as one man's vision: Shamshad Khan, who at the time was holding literacy classes for cattle-grazers and other working children, at night.

Khan soon extended his classes to the Mirzapur-Bhadohi carpet belt where he, along with Kailash Satyarthi, was the first to spearhead the release and rehabilitation of child labour working in the area. He then went on to start a chain of residential schools where the released children could get some respite before they were returned to their parents. As a tribute to his grit and hard work, Outlook magazine honoured him with its Best Social Worker of the Year award.

You have been working in the field of child labour for the past 30 years. Why is this problem so endemic to this region?
When I started working here 30 years ago, child labour was considered a non-issue. Large-scale migration used to take place here from Bihar, Bundelkhand and neighbouring areas. The nine districts of Bihar, including Saharsa, Supol, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Khagadia, Katihaar, Motihari, Palamau and Ranchi, formed the traditional catchment area for workers. Once the carpet boom started here in the 1980s, the influx of labour kept increasing until it became a flood.

In 1978, my organisation, the Bandua Mukti Morcha, took up the issue of child labour in a big way. Unfortunately, today it is the Delhi-based organisations that are taking all the credit for ensuring the release of these children.

Maybe you were not able to create enough of a mass movement?
On the contrary, ours was a huge movement. I would lead padayatras into remote villages. The situation in the early-1980s was so bad that children were being forced to work for as little as Rs 4 per day.

Using a combination of legal and social pressure tactics, we have managed to release 72,000 children. Many of them have stayed in our community cottage schools and then gone on (after regular schooling) to become engineers and post-graduates. That gives me a tremendous sense of pride.

But the problem of child labour persists. The last two years have seen an influx of child labour back into the region...
Children are coming in large numbers, but they are all being hidden and made to work in areas outside Mirzapur and Bhadohi. The result is that in most cases they remain undetected. On several occasions, the loom-owners claimed they were their own children, and, under the Child Labour Provision and Regulation Act 1986, children working with their parents are not considered child labour. That is why we insist that all out-of-school children must be considered child labour. But this is easier said than done. The children are being brought here by contractors in league with the carpet manufacturers. When we raise our voice against them, they hit back at us.

What exactly do you mean?
When one moves from 'development mode' to 'activist mode' and begins fighting for land rights for the landless, for tribal rights, as also against bonded labour, one becomes extremely vulnerable to vested interests. Don't forget we are not pursuing our activism sitting in Delhi but are doing it from one of the most backward parts of India. The local administration does not support us. The result is that local vested interests have hampered our functioning by implicating us in a number of false cases. I am not the only one affected. Magsaysay Award-winner Rajendra Singh, Hari Vallabh Parekh of Rajpura in Gujarat, and Gopalbhai from Chitrakoot are all facing similar problems in their areas. We are not criminals. We have spent a lifetime working with the downtrodden. Legal mechanisms should be put in place to assist rather than hamper our work.

Why does child labour and outside labour continue to pour into this carpet belt? Doesn't it affect the local weavers?
It's all a question of supply and demand. Till a few years ago, local hand-knotted carpets woven in the Persian design were in great demand in the international market. But these are expensive to make, and, with worldwide recession, demand has shifted to the cheaper tufted varieties of carpets. The traditional weaving community of Mirzapur-Bhadohi is sitting unemployed, while weavers from Shahjahanpur and Amrohi are working round-the-clock making tufted and segi carpets that require little training and even less artistry. It is a matter of great regret to us to see master craftsmen in our area being forced to sell their looms. The state government has thought nothing of preparing a bail-out package for them.

What kind of rehabilitation package have you prepared for rescued children?
The compensation package has been prepared by the state government. Since the local administration is unable to identify these children, they have to depend on civil society organisations to provide them with the information.

We run community cottages where the children come and live till such time as they can be sent back to their parents. Often, the parents do not want their children back. Nor do they want to spend on their education. They are used to contractors giving them some kind of lumpsum payment, and they do not want that disrupted.

Are many girls also being forced to work in these looms?
Girls are also being brought here in large numbers. Girls do ball-making, reeling, warping and fringe-knotting. These activities are not considered part of carpet weaving, so the child labour norms do not apply to them. But we believe they should not be excluded, as they are forced to work long hours in environmentally unhealthy conditions.

You mentioned that many of the children you rescued have gone on to study. But what happens to children who return to Bihar and Jharkhand? How can you stop them from being exploited in some other way?
This is a huge problem. The government is supposed to provide the children with an interim relief package, which should be matched with a similar relief package by the district officers in their own home districts. We have no way of knowing whether the children actually receive this or not. We are planning to undertake a study of all children released between April 1999 and March 2005, to find out their status. Once we collect all the details, and we find that they are not getting their due, we can file a PIL in the Supreme Court or take the matter up with the National Human Rights Commission.

Meanwhile, we have asked the ministry of labour to look into the whole question of unemployment facing the master weavers in our area. They need to get work or else the country will lose their skills forever.

InfoChange News & Features, September 2005