Belongs to Kurnool at AP or Telengana

Education instead of exploitation

While the girl in the brightly colored headscarf is talking, she hardly looks up, stoops in her stooped position and continues tugging at the cotton blossoms. Lakshmi is twelve years old and left school two months ago. Since then she has been working with 24 other girls every day from nine in the morning until six in the evening on a cotton field in the Kurnool district, around five hours' drive from the Indian metropolis of Hyderabad. Lakshmi earns 25 rupees, a little more than a dollar a day, here. She gives the money to her parents.

"I would also rather go to school and study. But my parents won't allow that."

Lakshmi and her friends Padma, Kamakschi, Jayamma and Shabinabee are among the estimated 100 million child laborers in India. The majority are girls from the lower caste. Many work in cotton fields like the one in Kurnool - where so-called hybrid seeds are produced. That means: two plants with different genetic makeup are crossed. It is a laborious activity: hundreds of cotton buds have to be opened by hand every day. Then the cover and petals as well as the anthers are removed. The next day, the seeds of another cotton plant are applied to the germ. Without shade, mostly in a slightly stooped position, the girls do their work - and are also exposed to toxic pesticides. Poluru Sreenivasulu is the owner of the three hectare cotton field in Kurnool where the children work.

"I employ children because they are easier to instruct. They come to work regularly and are also cheaper than adults. Nevertheless, I still pay them more than usual: 25 instead of 20 rupees."

The Indian law actually prohibits child labor up to the age of 14 years. 500 rupees, the equivalent of around ten euros, is the fine for those who illegally employ children. A punishment that is far too low, say critics, if it is used at all. Cotton farmer Sreenivasulu has not yet been punished.

"We know the law, we're a bit afraid of it. But it's the parents who keep sending us their children. That's why we take them as workers. In any case, nobody from the government has come over here to check."

Despite the exploitation of children, Sreenivasulu and the many other owners of small cotton farms in India have not yet become rich. Because the big business with cotton seeds is done by others: the Indian middlemen such as the Mahyco company, and the multinational corporations that buy the coveted seeds - such as Unilever from the Netherlands, Monsanto from the USA, but also Bayer AG from Germany. At least that is what Davuluri Venkateswarlu criticizes. As a child he had to toil in the fields himself. Today he is director of the Global Research and Consultancy Service in Hyderabad and has presented a comprehensive study on child labor in Indian cotton cultivation. Many international corporations are now aware of the problem, says Davuluri. And they have promised to put pressure on their suppliers to abolish child labor. But:

"They have been saying this on paper for a long time, but when it comes to putting it into practice, they are very slow. Companies do not keep their promises because then they would have to sacrifice part of their profit, which is this Business brings them in. "

Some of the criticized companies admit that they have "recognized the problem for a long time", but currently have "no one hundred percent solutions" for it. The German Bayer Group is even working on a pilot program to abolish child labor and expand schooling at Indian suppliers. Consider taking on school partnerships, medical care for the children and possibly village meals - all factors that would make it easier for parents to send their children to school. But the program is still in its infancy, according to Bayer. Meanwhile, in India, even child labor is hardly an issue in public. Rathna Chotrani knows that. She works as a journalist in Hyderabad and tries to use her articles and contributions to draw attention to the exploitation of the weakest in her own country - which rarely happens in the Indian press landscape.

"There are other issues that get special attention, such as politics. Child labor isn't even an issue for the press. The newspapers don't deal with it. And as for the public - we have a lot of poverty, and that's why it is It is normal for people that the children also have to earn the bread. And that's why it never occurs to them that it could be important to send their children to school. "

That makes education all the more important, stresses Rathna Chotrani. Not only international organizations and campaigns, but also the Indians themselves should face the problem.

"It's a central issue. And it needs to be addressed. The majority of the lowest caste children are child laborers. You can see a lot of children working in cafes, as auto mechanics, in the household. They even work for civil servants in their private homes. And in in public these people then criticize child labor. But there are many government politicians who employ children at home. "

The Indian non-governmental organization "MV Foundation", named after the historian Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya, has been trying for years to change awareness in their own country. The MV Foundation has been working in the rural areas of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh since 1991. Their goal: the complete abolition of child labor and regular school attendance for all boys and girls. An ambitious goal for which the foundation wants to mobilize various social forces, notes Shanta Sinha, chairwoman of the MV Foundation:

"The voices of those who advocate children's rights to education are getting louder. There are around 100 NGOs in India that are dealing with the issue. We have come together out of solidarity to make it clear that it is important for kids to go to school. And civil servants support us, but as individuals, not as institutions. We have formed networks to meet, work together, and to inform the public that there is a program to end child labor there. And that everyone should participate. "

The energetic chairwoman of the MV Foundation has also been able to win over government officials and politicians for her goals. In addition, a round table was set up in the provincial capital, Hyderabad, in which local entrepreneurs also participate, who are also committed to the abolition of child labor. Some of these companies give donations to improve the state education system. Shanta Sinha has great hopes for this new dialogue. Nevertheless, according to the MV Foundation, the fight against child labor is only just beginning. In the opinion of the foundation, a major mistake must first be cleared up, namely that according to which child labor can help families out of poverty. Shanta Sinha:

"I don't know of a single case in which children work and the family is therefore better off. Wherever child labor occurs, there is also poverty."

Child labor reduces the jobs for adults and therefore increases the misery, so it is said at the MV Foundation.

"On the other hand, we found that as soon as the children go to school, the poor start asking for higher wages. Women get double that, men who previously only worked 15 to 16 days a month get 24 or 26 days. It increases family income. So we found that child labor makes people's lives worse, depresses wages, and creates poverty, but when a large number of children go to school it decreases poverty. And the quality of life for people is improving. So, we really believe that child labor really increases poverty. "

Shanta Sinha also believes that the assumption that poor families do not want to send their children to school is completely wrong.

"We found that even the poorest parents were able to send their children to school. In fact, they make great sacrifices to keep them going. That they keep sending their children to school all the time is due to the fact that school education does not have a particularly high priority in society. "

The MV Foundation wants to change that. She therefore organizes awareness-raising campaigns in the villages, trying to convince parents as well as farmers and local employers that child labor is harmful to society as a whole. It's a tedious and lengthy process. And it only succeeds with the strong involvement of local officials. But he shows success. According to the MV Foundation, 300,000 children have been freed from work and debt bondage since 1991. It's not easy. First of all, volunteers have to be found who have the courage to speak out against child labor in public. These helpers, financially supported by the foundation, then draw up lists of children who work. Then they go to their parents, employers, village chiefs and teachers and talk to them over and over again, sometimes for years. Maddiah Mahon has four children, including an eight and a twelve year old son. Both of them used to work with him in construction.

"They also came to me, those from the MV Foundation, several times. At first I was skeptical, but then I accepted the suggestion that my children should no longer work. Now I can do my work without my sons I just have to do a little more. "

Mother Nagolu, 40 years old, also decided at some point to stop sending her little son to goat herding, but to school.

"My older sons, they didn't want that at first, who said the little one had to work like everyone else. But I thought it was good that he went to school. After all, nobody in our family has ever attended school."

It is often anything but easy to convince parents that their children should no longer work. Ramesha Warrama also knows this, recognized by her neighbors and residents of the small and remote village of Dorapalli as a kind of spiritual leader. She works with the MV Foundation.

"It was difficult to convince the others from the village and the employers that child labor is bad. First of all, the people were not ready to change anything in the traditional system. In addition, we are only used to doing that here Anyway, to send the boys to school, not the girls. But then we went from house to house with our group and talked to every family. We told people to treat the girls equally and to send them to school too . That was a big challenge in our village. And it only worked together with the MV Foundation. We formed committees for awareness-raising work and women's groups and, above all, mobilized the mothers. "

Many families in the village of Dorapalli finally gave in - the social pressure exerted by the MV Foundation's awareness groups was too great. Not standing as an outsider and not making yourself unpopular in the village community is still an important factor in Indian society - a factor on which the MV Foundation also builds in the fight against child labor. It therefore primarily employs people of respect from the villages as multipliers.

In addition to all education, it is urgently necessary to improve the ailing school system for the abolition of child labor in India. There are by no means schools in all villages and districts. The buildings are often empty, there is a lack of furniture, if the teachers are poorly paid and insufficiently motivated, lessons are often canceled. For a while, the Indian government promoted so-called night schools so that the children can work a few hours during the day. But the MV Foundation does not accept that. The organization demands full-day school attendance for all children. And in this sense it also puts pressure on the government. The foundation received support from the former Prime Minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh. The government changed last year. But the new Prime Minister Rajasekhara Reddy also promises to stand up for the cause.

"We are trying to make education a high priority by opening more schools, improving the level and training teachers. This is very important. Law alone cannot eliminate child labor. Our government's goal is productivity Raising the country, raising parents' incomes, guaranteeing jobs. That is our priority. We take care of it intensively. "

The government has initiated an employment program for adults, as well as various programs to protect the environment and improve the quality of the soil and crops in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh. But it is still completely unclear how these projects will be financed. It also remains to be seen what will become of the decision by the central government in Delhi to levy a two percent so-called education tax. As long as the public coffers are empty, the fight against child labor in India is dependent on private initiatives. The engineer and social activist Ramish, employee of the powerful TATA group of companies, has started one. He regularly undertakes his private patrols, walks through hotels, restaurants, workshops and keeps an eye out for child labor. When he finds a child who is illegally employed, Ramish informs the MV Foundation. Several children have already been released from forced labor. The Indian has motivated colleagues in his company to do the same. However, this commitment is not entirely harmless.

"One of the employers, frankly, hit me once in a while. Only for asking about the child and telling them to let them go. After that, I had to change my way of working a little If they don't listen to me, I'll inform the authorities. And then I'll go back with others. Not as an individual, it won't work. "

The activists of the MV Foundation do not want to remain lone fighters either. Together with its partners, the German World Hunger Aid, HIVOS from the Netherlands and Concern from Ireland, the Indian organization has started a large-scale campaign under the motto: "Stop child labor - school is the best place to work."

An international conference which the supporters of the campaign met in Hyderabad attracted a lot of attention. On the extensive grounds of a temple and park in the middle of the city, the participants acted fiercely. For Svami Agnivesh, once an entrepreneur himself and now one of India's spiritual leaders, the abolition of child labor is the key to solving many problems.

"If we achieve that, we can fight unemployment, all forms of malnutrition. We can also reduce the birth rate, if girls are educated, then birth control works. That would be a breakthrough in the vicious circle of poverty, in the vicious circle of unemployment and child labor."

But despite all agreement on the goal - abolition of child labor - on the way to get there, the international aid organizations are by no means as united as it seemed in Hyderabad. The Indian MV Foundation is often criticized because it does not want to compromise, is committed to the complete abolition of child labor and does not allow any mitigated forms. Some representatives of non-governmental organizations believe that this is unrealistic.

The millions of children forced to work in India and elsewhere in the world are unlikely to care about how best to help them. It is important for them that they are helped. Like the children of Balashray, a rehabilitation center run by the Rugmark Initiative in northern India.

All the children who romp around here today, learn to read and write, play ball and do gymnastics once had to toil as carpet weavers. They squatted in front of the knotting chairs for 12 to 14 hours, in narrow, stuffy rooms. Many were beaten, barely given anything to eat, and mostly received no wages. Deepak Kumar Singh, now 16 years old, was one of them. When the Rugmark inspectors came, rescued him from forced labor and took him to Balashray, a new life began for the boy.

"When I came here, I saw that there were more children like me. And I was glad that I wasn't alone. It's nice that I can learn something here. My brother never got the opportunity. This here in Balashray is more like what I imagined when I was a child. "