11 year old Ruby (name changed) never saw the face of any school. Because her father is a poor farmer cultivating one bigha of land and mother Hansa Devi works as a labourer under the MNREGA or national employment guarantee scheme. That’s why the parents leave Ruby at home to take care of their two younger siblings.

Early in the morning Ruby fetches water from a hand pump located half a kilometer away, feeds the goats and does other household chores along with helping her mother cook. She sometimes goes and works as a labourer too to meet the extra financial needs of the family.

However, Ruby’s life has changed a bit since January 2021. A voluntary organization named Ujhala in Sulav panchayat of Kotra block  of Udaipur district of Rajasthan has taken up the responsibility of teaching several child laborers like Ruby and other children of Covid affected families during night time. This campaign has been named as Light in Darkness: Night Community Learning Centers. In the local language these centers are called Ratpali Hikvu Kendra. Like Ruby, 311 children are studying in these centres. Of these, 158 are girls and 153 are boys. Currently, 4 centers of the institution are operating in Sulav and Kotra gram panchayat of Kotra block.

The children studying in these four centers are from very poor families, those who do not have access to school or children do some kind of labour during the day. In other words, these learning centers cater to children who could not pursue their studies during the Covid period.

According to Save the Children and Work’s No Children’s Business (WNCB) in their report titled ‘ Status of Child Labor and Legal Entitlements of Workers in Major Sectors in Rajasthan’ lakhs of children in the state are engaged in agriculture related work. The report says they do not even get wages for this work and they are deprived of their rights. Many children are given the task of feeding the family cattle, depriving them of opportunity to go to school.

COVID Response Watch LogoAccording to a report by UNICEF, while about 60 lakh children were out of school even before the Covid pandemic hit India, this number has increased significantly in the last two years. Across India, 1.5 million school closings have affected 247 million children in elementary and secondary schools, according to a UNICEF study.

According to UNESCO, the duration of school closures in India had been among the longest in the world. Though classes were moved online, millions of children from poor families were left disadvantaged as they did not have access to digital devices and the internet. Children in the slums who went to regular school’s pre-pandemic often have families that are too poor to afford the phones or other devices needed to study online.

Ravi Kiran, CEO of the organization, told Covid Response Watch, “The tribal community constitutes 95 percent of the population in the Kotra block. In this block only 39 % of the cultivated land is irrigated. On an average, a family has 2-4 bighas of cultivated land.”

Ravi further explains, “Due to the poor financial condition of the families, their children also do farming work with their families. Whereas according to the law, only children above the age of 14 years can help in household chores for a maximum of 4 hours, but here children are leaving school and working. That is why there is a large number of out-of-school and drop out children in this area.

Manish Singh of Manjari Sanstha says that there is no system of monitoring implementation of laws related to child labour or the length of time children engaged in household chores spend working? Or how much physical or mental harm is this work causing them?

What are these night shift schools?

Ratpali School is the center of education for those Covid-affected children who are unable to get mainstream education due to various reasons. The educated youth of the village have been selected to teach in these centres. In villages where youth teachers are not available, the responsibility of teaching is given to someone from the nearest village. In these night shift schools, neither any fee is charged from the children nor the rent for the place is to be paid. The parents of the children and the children themselves choose the time to study in these schools. These schools run for three hours at night.

The first half an hour in these centers is devoted to prayer and to relieve physical and mental fatigue. After this, the next two hours are for Hindi and Mathematics subjects. After this, the remaining half an hour is for group discussion among the children. This includes activities such as recounting with the children what they learned during the day, today’s likes and dislikes, examples of helping someone or thanking someone.

Aslam, another member of the organization, says that after the traumatic period of Covid, there is an unusual kind of mental stress among everyone. Children engaged in the activities organized by the learning centers however are mentally healthy. Group discussions also help children develop the habit of expressing themselves.

Ruby studying in this center says, “Earlier I did not know how to read or write anything, but after going to Ratpali school, I read Hindi words and learned arithmetic.”

According to Ravi there was always a belief about Kotra that no one could move around here during night time due to threat of crime and other safety issues. This has been proved to be false in the last one year thanks to the opening of the night community learning centers.

The model of the night shift schools is proving to be successful with help from the local community and children. The innovative institution has made it easier for children of poor families affected by Corona to get education.

This article has been supported by the Work: No Child’s Business (WNCB)

Madhav Sharma is a free lance journalist based in Jaipur, Rajasthan


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