Under the umbrella

A residential school in Chamtagora has relieved the anxieties of migrant workers native to the area, who spend most of the year away from their children

By Anish Gupta
Published: Sunday 30 June 1996

Under the umbrella

-- (Credit: Anish Gupta)"WE SHALL overcome" sing the children of Chamtagora village in Bankura district at six in the morning. It may be an unlikely song to hear in a remote tribal hamlet but their choral prelude heralds each day. Chamtagora in Bankura district has become a haven for many tribal children whose parents leave them in its residential school when they are away at work.

Large tracts of land in Bankura have remained mono-crop because of scanty and erratic rainfall. Therefore, agriculture in the district does not provide work for more than three months in a year. The tribals who are mostly Santhals, are compelled to seek jobs in other districts of West Bengal like Burdwan and Howrah, where the cultivation of multiple crops provides them with employment throughout the year.

Migrating couples whose employers do not encourage them to bring their children along -are faced with the problem of having to leave behind their children. For the nine months that their parents are away, the children have to fend for themselves. Some take to rolling bidis while most others work as cowherds in return for a ration. Schooling for them, till a year back, was out of the question.

The situation underwent a change when the Chamtagora Adivasi Mahila Samiti (CAMS), a voluntary organisation, set up a residential school for the children of migrant workers, giving them non formal pre-primary education, and shelter.

The initiative began in 1993, when CAMS got down to designing a programme to eradicate child labour. CAMS, headed by the well-known social worker Sundari Soren approached the International Labour Organization (ILO) for assistance to run a project for running non-formal schools in the villages around Chamtagora. The children, aged between six and 14, were to be taught at the pre-primary level and later admitted to government-run primary schools. In 1994, the ILO agreed to fund the endeavour and CAMS established 40 non formal schools in the district. Within a year, it succeeded in sending about 400 child workers to government schools. Significantly, more than half of the students are girls. "This is because women enjoy a position of respect in adivasi society," explains Anath Soren, a primary school teacher and director of the project.

But despite these efforts, the problem faced by migrant labourers persisted. So, in early 1995, CAMS approached the ILO again for more assistance for the residential school that they now planned to open for the children. The ILO cleared the project. The 100 children studying at the residential school show a perceptible change in attitude as they now received better nourishment.

However, the school is too small to cope up with the problems of all the families of the area. Also, many parents are reluctant to put their children in government schools, despite the fact that they are fit to move on to them. But the greatest fear dogging the programme's initiators is that sending the children to government schools will not act as a guarantee against their dropping out due to economic pressures. The possibility of a total reversal of all that has been achieved so far is real.

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