Children forsake school for labour

Chronic illiteracy and poverty overshadow this week's celebrations of Indian independence, reports Brendan O'Malley.

A government Bill to force parents to send their children to school is doomed to failure, according to district education officials, because too many parents cannot afford to spare their children from work during the day.

Nagendra Prasad, a local planning consultant for the southern state of Karnataka, said: "For almost all the children whose families have land, if there is heavy work to do, they are not going to school. This is the pattern that exists in the country."

At Nallaguttahalli, a typical small rural village in Kolar district, the inhabitants gathered barefoot around a map chalked into the brick-red soil on the main path.

This was an exercise in local planning and showed the pattern of dwellings in the village - from the sagging thatched huts of the lowest-caste families to the middle-caste homes with tiled or granite-slab roofs. Pinned to each house was a list of the children attending school and those who were not.

"Out of 58, there are 21 drop-outs," Mr Prasad said.

By Western standards Nallaguttahalli is extremely poor - like a hamlet from a pre-industrial age - but it is unexceptional in Kolar. One resident, Murthy, 35, ekes out a living making mud bricks and levelling land outside the village for 30 rupees (50 pence) a day. He explained why his sons, aged nine and 12, dropped out of school three years ago.

"I cannot get work here," he said, "so I need them to look after the sheep while I am away."

Muniyamma, 26, told a similar story. A single mother with four girls aged 12, nine, six and four, she sends only the second youngest to school, because she has to travel outside the village for labouring work - tarring roads and digging wells. She brings her four-year-old with her. "The older children have to go outside to search for wood," she says.

A second ground map, depicting the village's resources, revealed another problem. It showed that when the village well is dry, children have to walk between a half and three kilometres to collect water from tanks fed by a rock catchment. They also have to walk one-and-a-half kilometres to graze their cattle and sheep, and five kilometres to the nearest forest to collect firewood for cooking.

Mr Prasad conceded that the obstacles to education were all too obvious. The non-attendance would only be turned around if the villagers demanded help from the government and local non-governmental officials to develop the economy of their village. The Bill making primary education compulsory, due this session, would not change that.

"The problem for this village is that on the days that the children are fetching water or firewood, they are not going to school. But I can't promise we can provide water," he said.

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