The free mid-day meals scheme at government schools across India has served as an incentive for children to enroll, and remain in school and complete their primary education. However, by the time they are ready for higher or secondary education, a number of children drop out. Children as young as 14 look for employment in the unorganised sector to help support their families, many get trapped in the cycle of unorganised employment and subsequent poverty.
Chhattisgarh has been a key hunting ground for pseudo-employment agencies that lure children with dubious offers to work as domestic help in large cities. In reality, these children are often trafficked and end up in the flesh trade or working in inhospitable conditions in industries, garment sweatshops, dhabas, eateries, and garages. According to a UNICEF survey, between 2012 and 2014, as many as 1,500 children were trafficked from five blocks of Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district alone. So, the cumulative number of trafficked children in the district and state could be dramatically huge.
While government agencies and social organisations have been consistently working on ground to tackle this challenge, poverty, lack of awareness and the strong underground network for trafficking have proved to be persistent obstacles.
In a vital step to restrict the trafficking of women and children, Chhattisgarh became the first state to launch the Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Act in 2014. The Act permits licensed agencies to provide employment to women above 18 years of age under strict terms and conditions and bars any person, agent or agency from taking minor girls and boys out for work. It also has a strong monitoring mechanism in place for placement agencies.
Today, the collective efforts have brought about slow but steady progress. While the current on-ground rescue and awareness efforts need to continue, a more holistic approach is needed to break the vicious cycle of poverty and trafficking in the name of employment. And, the foundation for this approach is a good education.
It is universally acknowledged that if children are encouraged and supported to complete their higher secondary education, they will be equipped with knowledge and necessary skillsets that will enable them to look for employment in the organised sector or even tap into entrepreneurial opportunities. In the long run, this would enable districts like Jashpur to address many developmental problems including child trafficking and labour.
With this vision, the Jashpur District Administration under the guidance of its then District Collector Priyanka Shukla had started an initiative called ‘Yashaswi Jashpur’ in July 2016 to boost quality education across higher secondary and high schools. At the beginning of the academic session, teachers of Class X to Class XII and school principals participate in an orientation programme led by the District Administration where they are told about the programme and how it could contribute to the development of the district.
A strict monitoring mechanism was put in place to ensure better attendance in the schools. There were set objectives to achieve for every academic milestone – monthly, half-yearly, yearly, pre-board and board examinations. Students’ performance was assessed at each milestone and posted on a website set up by the Jashpur district administration. This kind of monitoring helped with timely interventions for students who needed academic assistance. In addition, to help the students perform better, mock question papers were distributed to the schools every month.
Teachers also attended video conference sessions wherein they could discuss the progress and roadblocks with the district administration.
Moderators were deputed at the schools, who reported the progress of the campaign to the District Education Officer as well as the Collector, thereby ensuring transparency and accountability. And finally, diligent revision sessions were conducted 40 days ahead of the board exams to help the children prepare for exams.
The impact was that in the 2017 board exams, 51 out of the 143 government schools in the district achieved 100 percent pass percentage. This is remarkable considering that achieving a 100 percent pass percentage was a rare occasion in the district.
This focus on initiating a systematic change in school education and enabling and encouraging children to complete their secondary education will go a long way in building a greater awareness about social evils, increased interest in pursuing education, and help them tap better job opportunities.