In 2019, 10-year-old Aryan Khan (name changed) was working at a construction site in Telangana’s Nizamabad district when he was rescued by an NGO and placed under a state-run rehabilitation scheme.
His luck did not last.
Two years later, the Special Training Centre (STC) he was enrolled in under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) — a Union Labour Ministry initiative to eradicate child labour — was wound up, and last year, the project itself was merged with a Union Ministry of Education scheme.
But education is something Khan is not getting. Now aged 13, he works at a supermarket in Nizamabad as a helper.
Three years after being rescued, Khan is back to being a child labourer.
NCLP: Shoddily planned
Khan’s story, and those of thousands of other children like him, is the story of the government not thinking the NCLP scheme through.
Under the NCLP Scheme, working children in the age group 9-14 years are rescued or withdrawn from employment and enrolled in STCs, where they are provided with bridge education, vocational training, midday meal, stipend and healthcare.
The problem was that, said Varsha Bhargavi, advisor for Telangana of the civil society organisation Child Rights Protection Forum, the scheme was “flawed from the beginning”.
Bhargavi listed its shortcomings: There were no clear guidelines on interventions; no directive on awareness campaigns; no capacity-building; no training for the staff; no sensitisation of stakeholders; no direction on rehabilitation of funds to the district administrations; and no infrastructure at the state level.
For instance, there was no mechanism to check how the ₹400 stipend put in the child’s bank account was utilised.
According to the Press Information Bureau release on 21 March, 33,573 children were being rehabilitated in 1,225 STCs operational in 59 districts across the country. However, the programme was subsumed under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), instead of a standalone scheme aimed at rehabilitating child labourers specifically.
The Union Labour of Ministry and Employment claims that more than around 10 lakh children have been rescued and mainstreamed since 1988 under the NCLP, which is now merged with the Union Ministry of Education scheme.
“Everything looked good on paper, but there was no implementation on the ground,” Bhargavi told South First.
Activists and stakeholders across the board agree why the NCLP is flawed in its template: The Union government is clueless about bridge courses.
Among its critics is Shanta Sinha, a former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).
“The government talks about foundational learning and teachers training, but has not understood how to implement a bridge course,” she explained to South First.
One reason why the government is clueless on this point may be found in Telangana activist Bhargavi’s theory: The wrong people are in charge.
“It is the education ministry that should have been the nodal head of the NCLP scheme right from the beginning, instead of the labour ministry,” Bhargavi said.
The faulty planning was also because the government takes “a very narrow definition of child labour in NCLP”, said R Venkat, national convenor of MV Foundation, a Secunderabad-based NGO working to eradicate the scourge through spreading education.
“They (the planners) do not count part-time working children, non-wage working children and those working with their parents as child labour in the scheme,” he said.
“Instead of full commitment, they think it’s a welfare programme and take pride in that,” Venkat told South First.
One significant fallout of the skewed approach has been a drastic cut in the budget outlay for NCLP — by as much as 88 percent over the past seven years.
Once the Union government’s flagship scheme to eradicate nationwide child labour, the scheme was allotted ₹250 crore in 2015-16; progressive cuts over the years saw the allocation at only ₹30 crore this year — an amount, experts say, that is not enough to fund even one state, let alone the entire country.
With no funds coming in, many STCs under the scheme — like the one in which Khan was enrolled — have had to be closed down.
As result, not only he, but thousands of other beneficiary children also have had to go back to work.
At least one-third of around 1,225 STCs were running in four of the five southern states (Kerala did not implement the scheme claiming low numbers of child labourers).
"As there are no mines or industries in Kerala, generally all the indicators are high. But in some industries like tourism, local restaurants, brick kilns, children who are trafficked work," Thiruvanathapuram-based Anannia NGO Director Anil Chilla told South First.
However, in Tamil Nadu alone, some 4,000 were kids impacted by the withdrawal of the scheme, according to SC Natraj, director of Erode district-based Service Unit for Development Activities in Rural (SUDAR).
“A lot of them are not attending schools now,” Natraj told South First.
Telangana activist Bhargavi called the budget cuts a “negatory action”. “It does not indicate that child labour has been reduced,” she fumed.
Citing the case of Telangana, she said not only did fund cuts force project managers to make out-of-pocket payments, teachers too were paid less than the sanctioned amounts.
“Who will teach in these conditions?”
"If the Central government is removing funds from NCLP, is it investing them anywhere else? Is it strengthening schools by creating bridge courses to enroll more vulnerable children? Is it opening more social welfare hostels? Is it identifying the children working as labourers or whether they are going to school?" Bhargavi asked.
All pertinent questions which demand answers.
(This article has been updated correcting the number of STCs and children forced to return to work)