(This story appeared in the May 13, 2012 issue of THE WEEK. Click here to read it on the magazine’s website.)
Nagaraj Kolkere dropped out of school after a teacher scolded him for looking out of the window during class. “You are only fit to graze cattle,” the teacher ridiculed him. He was sick of such jabs and, in any case, he could not follow what was being taught in school. He stayed at home doing household chores and taking care of his disabled sibling. Then he found a job as a cleaner at a bar, and moved on to similar small jobs. One day, he stopped at a meeting in his village where he heard some volunteers from an NGO talk about the rights of child workers and joined them. Now, 22 years later, he runs a successful construction business that specialises in putting up low-cost, eco-friendly buildings and heads a team of 20 workers. “I earned 02 from my first job, 020 from the next, now I deal with 080 lakh annually,” he says with a smile.
Like Nagaraj, hundreds of children have done well in life thanks to Namma Bhoomi (‘Our Earth’ in Kannada), a residential school, in Kundapura taluk of Udupi district, which was established by a Bangalore-based NGO, The Concerned for Working Children (CWC), in 1993. It gives school dropouts and working children an opportunity to continue their education and learn vocational skills.
Founded by activists Nandana Reddy and Damodar Acharya in the late 70s, CWC says it is the first Indian NGO to take up the issue of child rights. “We talked about children’s participation as a fundamental right even before the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was drafted,” says Kavita Ratna, one of its directors. It is largely funded by Norwegian NGO FORUT.
Through its meetings, like the one Nagaraj attended, and training programmes, CWC gives children the inspiration and information to defend themselves. It has been advocating children’s right to participate in the decision-making process through its Bhima Sangha—said to be the world’s first working children’s union—Makkala Panchayat (children’s government) and Children’s ward sabhas. Impressed by the work, three Norwegian parliamentarians nominated CWC for the Nobel Peace Prize this February.
The idea of establishing Namma Bhoomi had come from children themselves. They were tired of schools that looked down upon them and did not equip them to face the real world. After examining education systems from around the world, a school by the children, of the children and for the children was set up.
“In India, a family has to invest in 12 years of schooling before a child can acquire a skill and start earning,” says Nandana. Namma Bhoomi follows a four-pronged approach in its curriculum. First, the children are given academic training up to class 10. The next dimension is personal development, where they are taught about health, cleanliness and sex. This is followed by empowerment education, where they are made aware of their rights and how they can participate in the democratic process. Finally, vocational education, where they are trained in skills like carpentry, garment-making, electrical work and computer applications.
Poverty is almost always the reason why children join Namma Bhoomi. “My father could not afford to send me to an engineering college,” says Shivaram, who learnt electrical work. “Now I run my own shop and have got a Class-I contractor licence.”
Starting off on a piece of barren land, the 6.25-acre campus has now transformed into a beautiful haven complete with mud buildings, fruit trees and even a small forest in its backyard. The children live in perfect harmony with nature here. “Every batch is assigned a plot of ‘project land’ on which they cultivate vegetables,” says Ramesh Mallya, project officer, Namma Bhoomi. “We also cultivate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables here and swear by organic methods of farming.” A dairy farm on the campus produces, on an average, 50 litres of milk a day.
Namma Bhoomi has transcended barriers of caste and gender. “In our village, there were a lot of restrictions on girls. We were forbidden to talk to boys,” says Nagaratna, who now works in Namma Angadi (Our Shop), the garment production unit on the campus. “But here, we learnt to shed our inhibitions. Earlier, I had not even been to the nearest town, Kundapura, on my own. But now I have become independent and can travel alone.”
Apart from academic and vocational training, children are taught activities like dance, theatre, yoga, arts, crafts and life skills, too. Baby, an alumna who teaches dance at the school, says, “Back home, only men are trained in Yakshagana. But here even girls can learn this unique dance form.” Baby, who graduated in 1996, runs a garment-making unit and has employed ten women to assist her in the business.
While the empowerment lessons here enabled Baby to say no to getting married at an early age, they gave 25-year-old Ayyamma the courage to marry a man of her choice. She fought against her husband’s family and refused to pay dowry. Once a rag-picker, she graduated from the computer training programme here, and now works as an administrative assistant in an NGO in Bangalore.
Around 1,200 children have passed out of the portals of Namma Bhoomi and many young lives have been touched and moulded here. “They [CWC] are to me, what a foundation is to a house,” says Rajeshwari, another proud alumna, who works in Bangalore.
CWC says it is the first Indian NGO to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the nomination has not changed anything, its unstinting efforts have only been reaffirmed. “We have a long way to go and so much more needs to be done,” says Nandana, with a smile.