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How Sivakasi redeemed itself

B Bagyalakshmi, S Mahalakshmi and K Sankaralingam have two things in common. All these children used to work in firecracker and matchbox making units at Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. However, they rebuilt their lives after studying at the National Child Labour Project (NCLP)’s special training centres, which are run with the financial assistance from Central and state governments.

While Bagyalakshmi had scored the second rank, Mahalakshmi came third in the higher secondary examinations last year in the state. Sankaralingam has joined Tamil Nadu Special Police Department.

The three have become the symbols of change that Virudunagar district, where Sivakasi is located, has seen over the past few years. Besides Sivakasi, Sattur and Rajapalayam also had many cracker-making units that employed children.

But that is history. Today, Sivakasi is inching towards achieving the distinction of becoming a ‘zero’ child labour industrial cluster in the state, housing 800 cracker factories.

According to social activists, Sivakasi and adjoining areas, located about 565 km from Chennai, are suited for cracker production, thanks to dry climate and availability of cheap labour. The cracker industry in Sivakasi is estimated to be worth about Rs 3,500 crore, accounting for 70% of the total cracker production in the country.

A senior government official associated with the project says, “Child labour in Sivakasi is now a history.” According to him, the number of special training centres for educating children rescued from factories has come down to 19 from 120. The total number of students studying in these centres is 650, down from earlier 10,000.

After taking temporary training at the centres, these children are admitted to government schools and then sent to colleges. The official says the key to success of the project was regular monitoring of the students through volunteers stationed in villages.

K Pandiarajan, Virudhunagar MLA, says now children do not constitute even one% of the total workforce. Besides the state government’s efforts, the factors that worked to bring an end to child labour were a concerted campaign by voluntary sector organisations, social pressure on parents and high levels of automation in the factories. Media and regular court interventions also have played a major role.

District Collector T N Hariharan had sent about 100,000 letters to villagers explaining to them the necessity of education, the problems relating to child labour and early marriage. in those letters, he gave his mobile number, the project director’s number and a helpline number. NGOs say the drive helped as villagers now know whom to call if there are any complaints regarding child labour. Frequent raids and searches have also helped the cause.

K Mariappan, vice-president, Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Association, says while everyone has a word of advice on child labour and makes baseless allegations, nobody takes the trouble of proving their claims. The association has also written to Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel laureate, to prove his claim that the cracker industry still employs over 100,000 child labourers. Mariappan admitted that child labour was once rampant in the area.

A senior industry official alleged that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Virudhunagar get around Rs 20 crore every year as aid and it’s in their interest to keep the child labour issue alive.

NGOs dismiss the charge. V Rajagopal, president, NEEDS, an NGO operating in the Virudhunagar district, and state convener of Campaign against Child Labour, says in remote parts of the district, the practice of child labour still continues. “Yes, there is a reduction of around 20-25% in child labour, but still we have a long way to go,” says Rajagopal.

The other major issue is illegal units in rural pockets, which are strongholds of the Dalit community. “We are not able to get into these pockets to curtail child labour. If we do, it turns out to be a caste issue. Besides, they have strong political support,” says Mariyappan.

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