On a call today, I heard a woman so calm and compassionate yet fierce and outspoken in her own ways, especially when it comes to social justice and child rights. She is a professor, an activist, and founder of Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF). She has been working tirelessly for the betterment of children of our country. She has spent over 30 years working to end child labor and fighting for children’s rights.
In a conversation with KenFolios, Padma Shri awardee Shantha Sinha talks about the journey of her life and how she is winning the fight against child oppression and bondage.
Born on January 7, 1950, in Nellore of Andhra Pradesh, Shantha was the only girl among seven siblings. Her upper caste Brahmin family made sure that their children did not grow up with privilege. Shantha spent the first 20 years of her life in Hyderabad, where she got a master’s degree in political science from Osmania University. Later, she went to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, to pursue PhD in Naxalite Movement in Andhra Pradesh.
While studying in JNU, she got married to her classmate, in the year 1972. “I had my first daughter before I could finish my PhD. I had to leave her with my parents while I tried to finish my studies faster in Delhi,” she says. It is a very tough choice for a mother but Shantha knew she had to focus on her education then, as it was also her passion.
After coming back, Shantha joined the Osmania University as a lecturer and had her second daughter. In the early 1979, she joined the Department of Political Science in the University of Hyderabad. Life was much calmer and settled now. After years of hard work, she was with her family and could enjoy the fruits of her labour. But a lightning struck when she lost her husband to cerebral haemorrhage.
“Since I had two daughters, I kept working and my parents took care of us. In 1984, I had to do a course on rural politics in India in the university. I thought of visiting a village before talking about the subject,” she tells. Shantha started going to the villages around the University of Hyderabad. She wanted to make it a part of their university project, as well and applied for a program called Shramik Vidyapeeth by the central government.
It was a Worker’s Education Program and for the first time in the country, there was a rural worker’s education program.
“I started visiting the villages every evening blindly, without knowing what I was doing. There I met Dalit families and bonded laborer’s family. Every night, I would stay there go to the university next day,” she unfolds. Her parents encouraged her as they thought that she was finding her way. In the process, Shantha found out the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act and realized that those people had to be released from bondage.
“There was a friend of mine who was working on that issue in a nearby district. I saw her program, sought her help and started mobilizing them to get out of bondage. I was teaching and slowly getting drawn into organizing and empowering them to assert their rights,” she says.
Through Shramik Vidyapeeth, Shantha started organizing them and started making an appeal to the government for the release of bond. She was taking them to the labor court, calculating how much of wage they should have actually got, getting compensation for the farmers, organizing women for bare minimum wages. “I was gradually doing a kind of union work without calling them a union. While I was continuing to teach and continuing to do this in the name of Shramik Vidyapeeth, my term there got over,” she says.
Shantha saw that 40 percent of bonded people were children and they had no voice. She wanted to eradicate the system of abuse and manipulation and wanted to give a future to these children with ace to quality education and free from slave labor.
That was when Shantha started her family trust Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF) which was working for the welfare of poor children with scholarships for higher education. She joined with the focus on children and bonded labor children. “In those areas, there was a lot of confrontation and tension. If you are working for children, you have to be a lot more careful as they can not be subjected to so much tension,” says Shantha.
They started working out on new framework of actions where children were not subjected to risk. They changed the entire style of functioning and decided to work on convincing everybody in the village in support of children. And not take it up a caste or class issue but make it a children’s issue. “We also made them understand that if a child is out of the school then the child is a child laborer.”
Even after rescuing the children, they found that the children had no place to go, as when they were admitted STD 1, they were too old to be in that class. The started residential programs to prepare them for a class appropriate for their age, calling it a bridge course class. Over the period of 20 years in MVF, there have been at least 60,000 students who got into the mainstream education through this camp. There were teachers who were insensitive about these children but today, MVF has around 3,000 school teachers working with them.
On November 14th, MVF collected all the employers who employ children and conducted a Vidya Daan Ceremony where the employers gave pencil and school bags to the children who they had employed as bonded laborers and the children in turn garlanded them for leaving them.
As of 2017, MVF has around 86,000 volunteers. Over 1 million children have been freed from indentured labor and have been enrolled in school. Also, 168 villages are now child labor free.
Shantha says that bringing every child to school was a part of the conflict but they learnt to resolve the conflict without polarizing the village. “When we withdrew 10 lakh people from the work, we resolved 10 lakh conflicts, as there is conflict in everything. Its only when there is a conflict, there is a dialogue, discussion, consensus that children have to go to school,” she adds.
For her years old dedication and hard work, Shantha was awarded the Padma Shri, in 1998. She was also given the Albert Shanker International Award from Education International and the Magsayay Award in 2003. Due to her influence, Indian parliament passed the Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act in December 2005, which created the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Professor Sinha was chosen to act a its first chairperson and served for two consecutive three-year terms.
As she signs off, Shantha delivers a very strong message. She says, “Everybody must understand that children are no less than adults. Infact, they more important as they are vulnerable. If we don’t tolerate adult beating another adult, why should we tolerate an adult beating or punishing any child?” She adds, “Give respect to children. Those who are employing children as domestic workers are not doing them any favor. It is the child who is doing a favor on you.”
“Your life is dependent on children’s life. Your roti, kapda, makaan is completely dependent on child labor. At least feel conscious that they form your blood and bones by shedding their blood and bones. Their life and your lives are interdependent,” she concludes.
Professor Shantha Sinha has saved so many lives by her Gandhian approach. Her work in the field of social service and education is incredible. We salute her efforts.