Chennai: There is quite a celebration in the two-room tenement where Shalini Munnuswamy lives with her parents. Rescued from bonded labour when she was 11, Shalini has just graduated from high school in Chennai.
For a child who earned up to Rs 100 rupees for each basket of shrimp she cleaned, her result last week was a milestone she thought she’d never reach.
“It seemed impossible at one point. There would be constant bickering about money at home and I would go outside with my books to study,” Shalini told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, standing under the recently repaired thatch roof of her home.
“It has been a real challenge to identify children working on fishing boats carrying loads of fresh catch or cleaning fish and running errands for the fishermen,” said R Pramila, a teacher appointed under India’s National Child Labour policy to bring rescued child workers into the mainstream schooling system.
“It was even more difficult to get them back to books because families relied on the income they brought in.”
There are 5.7 million Indian child workers aged between five and 17, out of 168 million globally, according to the International Labour Organization.
In the narrow, muddy lanes of the fishing neighbourhood of Kasimedu near the port in Chennai, alcoholic fishermen, broken homes and extreme poverty force young children to spend endless hours peeling and cleaning the day’s catch.
Shalini was pulled out of Class 6 to help her parents repay four loans of five lakhs taken for her sisters’ weddings.
“The work began at five in the morning and to earn enough I would have to go through at least five baskets of catch. It ate into the time I would be in school and left me with blistered fingers,” Shalini said.
Five years back, when Pramila met Shalini and asked if she wanted to go back to school, the answer was a quick yes.
Now, every evening Pramila unlocks the door to a room in Kasimedu that promises the children in the fishermen’s colony a shot at education.
The effort is part of the National Child Labour Policy, formulated in the 1980s with the objective of “suitably rehabilitating” children taken out of employment.
The programme targets children aged 9 to 14 years, while encouraging younger children to join the formal school system directly.
On the very steps that she spent hours in debt bondage, cleaning baskets of shrimp as a 10-year-old dropout from school, Shalini stands and talks about going to college and becoming a physics teacher.