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India is one of the biggest brick producers globally, with approximate 200,000 brick kilns. But the unregulated and largely rural industry is fraught with problems. Low wages, poor living and working conditions make it difficult for children of these brick kiln workers to access health and education services. Their condition aggravated during the pandemic.

Puja Kisku, a 13-year-old girl from Sukandighi village in Malda (West Bengal), lives with her younger brother, parents and grandmother. She belongs to the Scheduled Tribe community. Her father, Shuniram Kisku, is a brick kiln worker. The pandemic-induced lockdown robbed him of a steady livelihood. In addition to insurmountable financial hardships, Puja’s learning stopped. A desperate fear loomed over her – drop out of school and engage in labour work at the brick kiln.

After 22 months of school closure, Puja found it challenging to return to school. She had missed out on virtual classes during the pandemic, and there was a disruption in her regular study habits. She was lagging behind her peers.

Taking cognisance of the learning difficulties faced by migrant children, Bal Raksha Bharat and its local partner organisations set up Multi-Activity Centres in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas and Malda districts. The aim was to create access and support for children, who had dropped out or never been to school, to get admission to local government schools. Apart from equipping children with interactive learning material, the facilitators at the centres also received periodic inputs on children’s academic competencies at the primary level and aligning with the government curriculum.

Rekha Rajbanshi, a Bal Raksha Bharat’s Multi-Activity Centre (MAC) facilitator, started interacting with Puja’s family. During a close interaction, she found out that Puja was afraid of going back to school. Immediately after this interaction, Rekha prepared a daily routine for Puja and started providing her learning support through the MAC. This effort helped Puja make up for the lost time and stay up-to-date with her lessons.

“We started physical classes after two months of lockdown inside the premises of the brick kilns. Children like Puja were lagging in terms of their age-specific learning. Moreover, school closure had made these children disinterested. At the MAC, we tried to counsel Puja and other children to bring back their interest in learning and slowly followed a daily routine to support their education. Soon, Puja was borrowing books from a small library we had set up inside our MAC,” said Rekha.

Puja also regained her confidence. She has returned to Sonajuri Junior High School in Class 7 and regularly attends school.

“I am delighted to be back in school. I couldn’t attend the virtual classes since my parents couldn’t afford a smartphone. I was living under constant fear of getting trapped into labour work,” shared Puja.

How did the Multi Activity Centres Help?

The Multi-Activity Centres (MAC) had to be set up in a child-friendly space near the brick kilns. After some scouting, space was secured across 80 brick kilns. As the centres began to function, the managers and munshis of brick kilns started realising the benefits of such centres. They saw the facilitators focusing their energies on bringing children to the centres and undertaking various educational activities that promoted physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development in children. The centres gradually grew into safe, warm, vibrant and colourful spaces where children could rest, talk, play and learn. The centres also remained operational during the months when the brick kilns didn’t function.

These centres provided Early Childhood Care and Education inputs to children below six years, educational support to children aged 6 to 14 years, and inputs on life skills and vocational training opportunities for adolescents in the 16-18 years age group. The MACs also facilitated meetings with mothers, interactions between health and Integrated Child Development Services functionaries and mothers and adolescent girls.

The RTE Act 2009 influenced the work priorities, which aligned with the Act’s key provisions (universalisation, prohibiting corporal punishment, promoting community engagement in schools, boosting school development planning processes, and providing more space and visibility to the children themselves).

The facilitators at the centres received periodic inputs on mapping children’s academic competencies. They were trained to impart education in bilingual format, and capacity building exercises stressed on the four pillars of educational work – teacher, curriculum, methodology and development. Crèche volunteers also received training on child growth and development, nutrition, the importance of hygiene and other relevant issues.

Bal Raksha Bharat is currently running 30 MACs across 105 brick kilns in two districts of West Bengal.

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