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 •  Printer friendly version The foundations of learning
Shanta Sinha and the M V Foundation bridge the great gap between poor children and mainstream education.
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October 1999 : Why should a child go to school? Because good schooling represents a break with the past, presenting the opportunity to accomplish things that one might otherwise only dream about. Also, in school, children get to be with one another, a vital part of the process of development. For too many of our people, education is the great divide between their dreams and the reality of their lives, and if that gulf is to be bridged, we must present all children with the opportunity to join the mainstream. The first step must therefore be quite clear - get the children to school.

Magsaysay 2003!
Shanta Sinha wins 2003 Magsaysay award for Community Leadership.

- Full list of Indian winners
- MVF fights child labour Without this conviction, every effort was bound to have only limited success; the results are plain to see. On the one hand, we uphold the notion of universal education, while at the same time we make excuses for the situations that keep children out of schools. Today, it doesn't shock us that over 100 million kids in India go to work instead of to school. However, there is hope that this situation is changing. It is changing in a far reaching way, in a manner that addresses the very core of the problem. The twin problems of child labor and lack of access to mainstream education for poor children have been addressed together, with remarkable success, by one exemplary non-government organization (NGO). This is the M. Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF). In the Rangareddy district of the state of Andhra Pradesh, the M V Foundation and its leading activist Shanta Sinha, need no introduction.

Instituted in 1981, the M V Foundation began functioning as a charitable non-profit Trust from 1991. Shanta Sinha has been leading the activities of MVF with the charter that they will not setup new schools, but will instead pressurize the community to work the system to utilize and expand existing schools. Currently, the organization is predominantly volunteer based and in 1997, it functioned with about 600 volunteers; the staff comprised of about 30 supervisors overseeing various projects.

Click for larger picture. The goals of the foundations are threefold. Firstly, to create awareness among the disadvantaged sections of the society regarding their social, economic and political predicament. Secondly, to facilitate processes towards building of a civil society through collective action, participation and community based initiative. Thirdly, to work towards elimination of child labour. Ms.Sinha sees the MVF as a catalyst to forge the parent community, the village leaders, the child employers, the political system and the bureaucracy into taking children out of work and putting them to school.

The foundation's achievements are best illustrated by citing some of its results. More than 15,000 children in 300 villages of the Rangareddy district have benefited from the programs of the MVF. Between 1992 and 1996 the number of MVF appointed para-teachers in government schools in the region grew from 5 to 545. The number of para-teachers appointed by the parent-teacher associations and various gram panchayats grew from 2 to 500. The number of villages included in the programs grew from 15 to 300.

That is not all. There have been other progressive spin-offs as well. The attitude of the village communities towards their children has changed. There is greater pride in them and a greater sense of responsibility towards children-related issues. Sensitive issues such as the age of marriage for girls have come under scrutiny with a number of girls insisting on remaining in schools. In agriculture, for the employers, it has meant a change in cropping patterns and, to the adult laborer, greater bargaining power. Furthermore, adult laborers have also been forced to work more productively.

In acknowledgment of her significant contribution, the government of India conferred the Padma Shree award on Ms.Sinha.

The MVF's strategy is based on age group and gender. Children in the age group 9-14 years are run through a bridge course which utilizes what they already know to enable them to catch up with regular school children of their own age. Younger children are admitted directly to government schools in their respective regions. In all cases, there is a detailed follow-up program which ensures minimal drop-out.

For the girl child, the approach is more intensive. The foundation has identified the need to deal with the older girl children through programs aimed specifically to meet their special needs. Experience of the MVF has shown that much of the thinking on the issue of girl child labour is constrained by the exaggerated importance given to certain stereotyped roles assigned to the girls. Thus the role girls play in bringing up their siblings, in the domestic work and in assisting their mothers at home have often been viewed as an inevitable and immutable aspect of their lives. While it is true that girl children do play a major role in domestic activities, what the MVF experience has shown is that they too are amenable to a program which draws them away from their traditional roles and that they are willing to face the challenges and grasp the opportunities that the education system presents.

At another level, the MVF has redefined the role of goverment school teachers by making them part of the community. The government school teachers have been drawn into a number of activities of the MVF. They are associated with the enrollment drive, in conducting bridge courses and in training. These teachers are increasingly playing a much larger role than they have been doing all along. In another unique approach, the MVF has also created positions for community teachers who are separate from government teachers. The MVF volunteers believe that the concept of expanding education is inextricably linked to the actions of withdrawing children from work. This in turn involves active intervention at the level of the family and the workplace, neither of which normally falls in the sphere of operation of the regular government school teacher. One way a link can be established between the real situation of the working child and the school is to have someone who can double as teacher as well as a child labour activist. It is this role that the community teacher performs.

During implementation of its various programs, the MVF has had to deal with the harder problems that are so deeply interwoven into the complex social fabric of our communities. And in the process the foundation has shattered several myths. That poor parents are forced to pull their children out of school because of their economic circumstances. That the only form of education deliverable to poor and rural children is some flavor of non-formal education (NFE). That children prefer to work to support their families rather than go to school. That teachers are not motivated to work and often abandon their responsibilities.

The MVF pointed out that most of the schools, strictly speaking, cannot cater to all the illiterate children in their area of operation without at least additional staff, if not additional accommodation. In a sense, this situation exposes the basic limitations of the government program for Universalisation of Elementary Education. Today, adequate infrastructure just does not exist and even if all the working children in a region are motivated to attend school, they cannot be enrolled. However, MVF believes that the solution to this problem lies not in duplicating the government infrastructure but rather in extending the government institutions and manpower.

On another front, the foundation has had to battle with the status-quoist norms that have come to prevail amongst the literate people. Also, successive governments have routinely justified rural child labor; even some NGOs focus more on the children in school and not those out of school. Instead of looking at the totality of children in the workplace, the politics of sectoring out child labor into industry level problems has gotten greater attention.

Another problem the MVF came up with is that paternalistic attitudes often intrude into the system, making it even less efficient. Often, the government appears to tell parents in deprived communities what they should want. There is an effort to determine the destiny of the downtrodden, instead of arming them with the facilities that will eventually allow them to determine their own. This is an extension of the fact that most literacy improvement schemes are run as income generation programs for parents, or thinly veiled poverty alleviation schemes. Besides providing no obvious benefit to the children, these actions undermine the parents' ability to think for their children.

This is especially sad, because parents are usually quite conscious of their responsibility to their children, and are willing to make sacrifices to ensure that their children go to school. During conversations with parents throughout their enrollment campaigns, the MVF volunteers observed that Government apathy has led parents to internalize the stereotypical responses generated by their cynicism. However, when they occasionally encounter teachers or administrators with genuine intentions, they come forward to play their roles quite eagerly. Often children who are out of school are re-admitted by parents when they discover genuine value to it.

A lack of accountability in the system is still another problem. The federal government, the states, and village bodies managing education are theoretically well organized, but in reality barely function together. The central government provides the ideological structure, which state and local bodies are funded to implement. But all bodies remain largely unaccountable to anyone. Through its results, the MVF has shown that effective school management systems answerable to locally elected bodies and deriving funds from local government are needed.

Addressing various funding groups in the United States in 1997, Shanta Sinha described the crucial role that the NGOs need to play in bridging the great divide that exists in India. To paraphrase her views - NGOs need to build up pressure for effective functioning of schools and lobby for provisioning of more schools. They must articulate the latent demand of the parents for providing education to their children. The need is to strengthen the existing infrastructure. The resources and experiences of NGOs who have attempted to design better schools and curricula must be utilized to strengthen regular schools. The NGOs must force the government to deliver on its responsibilities towards childrens' education. NGOs should not try to create parallel structures with their limited resources. They must instead press for the presence of all children in schools and must press for the law on free and compulsory elementary education.

For more than half a decade, Shanta Sinha and the M.Venkatarangaiya Foundation volunteers and activists have been working to bring to the poor children in Rangareddy district, unconditional access to mainstream education. Not only have the efforts produced results, but they have led to the breaking of many myths concerning universal education and child labor. Ms.Sinha believes that every child out of school is very likely a working child. The MVF's programs do not make any distinction between one form of child labour and another. It is a single minded agenda to ensure no child goes to work and all go to school.

Subramaniam Vincent
October 1999

Material for this article was obtained partly from the 1997 Annual Report of the MV Foundation, which India Together gratefully acknowledges.