We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Sir and Madam

It is a familiar and embarrassing scene: we five Europeans sit up on chairs while grateful children sit on the floor and applaud us. Some jump up and sing. It is genuine: these children know that we can make their futures possible.

One of the smaller ones takes me by the hand. She is immaculate in white shirt and navy skirt, which she washes and irons herself. Out of her tidy tin box she brings her wrapped treasures from which she selects a postcard of a film star dressed as a goddess. She gives this to me and forces me to take it. Her name is Lakshmi; the film-goddess is Parvati.

They have been found, brought to school, lured or snatched or commanded away, found again, rescued again. But not by the state

An emotional moment. This girl has been rescued from domestic slavery and abuse, given her chance. She is enjoying her childhood. She wants to rise to tenth class and then do a nurse-training course. ‘When I do that, I will pay money to help others like me,’ she says.

Emotional, of course, but why is it necessary? This is India: nine per cent economic growth, great laws, big budgets. Why rely on me – us? What about those thousands of new Indian millionaires – the Hindujas, Mittals or Tatas?

Why does she need us? After all, she has the Indian Constitution squarely on her side. Free, universal and indeed mandatory education is her absolute right. I could list for her the relevant Articles in the Constitution: 21, 21A, 23, 24, 39, 41, plenty more. There is an absolute legal promise to her, renewed very recently and backed by cash and a delivery system. There are promises, going back to 1933 and strengthened resolutely through the decades, that as a child she is exempted from labour to pay a father’s debts; that she may not be employed in domestic service, or on the blistering roads mixing tar, or in the brutal quarries breaking stones with a tiny hammer, or in brick-kilns. She must never have to work in factories. She is exempt from tending goats or buffalo in the shrubby thorns. She is safe from sexual and other abuse by ‘owners’ or officials or schoolteachers.

Yet each child here – 40 of them, some of the 200 we will meet today – has been in and out of those fields and kilns and domestic kitchens. Many of them have been abused along the way. They have been found, brought to school, lured or snatched or commanded away, found again, rescued again. But not by the state.

All these girls – and young boys in other such schools – should also have behind them the vast budgets and the regiments of bureaucracies charged with helping them. The Indian Federal Government, the State Government of Andhra Pradesh, the District, the Mandal (a group of panchayats), and her panchayat (a group of villages). All have funds for this work. All have the human resources too. This tiny Lakshmi, still carrying signs of a malnourished past, has on her side Ministers, Magistrates, Collectors, Education and Literacy and Labour Officers, Project Officers and Special Project Officers, Headteachers of state schools, Revenue Inspectors as well as the might of the Indian Constabulary. I have counted 25 such layers and probably missed some. None is here today. Nor is this a state school, whose doors are wide open in law to these youngsters under the Reservation system for the low-caste. Under Indian law, Lakshmi has a desk waiting for her.

Lucky girls
But the people who did all the work to get them here and keep them safe, who took on the endless struggles against prejudice, caste, corruption and indifference, are not state officials. They are an Indian couple, running a small registered NGO (non-governmental organization). They are known as Madam and Sir, and they have been here for 30 years.

‘Clever kid, nice kid,’ says Sir about Lakshmi.

Madam points out a less merry child, who holds a baby nephew upon her knee: ‘She has better days than this; she is feeling sad today because she is far behind.’

These are in fact lucky girls, because the Indian Government allows and encourages NGOs to be the point of delivery. The Government long ago understood that within its vast armies of officials there were many who could not – or simply would not – see things through.

They deploy the ancient Indian weapons of moral influence and patience... Above all, they use persistence – the rarest virtue of all

Corruption, caste, the complex drudgery of doing this work are the baffles for development at these track-ends of rural India. There is no bribe money from the likes of Lakshmi, her caste-links are feeble, her family is already in debt. Officials often bribe for or buy their own positions, calculating an income three or four or many more multiples of their stated salary. Without the bribe for them, nothing can be done. They need to get their own children out of the low-income band; they need to buy their own kith and kin extra tuition, a place in a private school, special computer classes, the dream of getting to Bangalore or Hyderabad where the huge IT industries are found. The greater dream is to get their children to Houston, Toronto, Leicester. Theirs is the power to issue exemptions, certificates, budgets, the passes to all sorts of gates to opportunity. Many such officials have no interest in helping those who cannot bribe.

In parts of India there is progress without NGOs: in Kerala over 90 per cent of children are thought to be in school. In most states there is a mixed pattern, with NGOs playing a vital part. But up in Bihar and in parts of Uttar Pradesh, volunteers are unwelcome or even threatened. There they face an iron nexus of upper or middle castes, landlords and politicians. Gandhian ideals do not apply. Even Sir and Madam would struggle there. How many middle-class families would welcome that choice of career for their children?

Sir and Madam know where the child labourers are, who employs them and how to work on parents to let their children study. They deploy the ancient Indian weapons of moral influence and patience on reluctant bribe-prone officials and worried parents alike. Above all, they use persistence – the rarest virtue of all.

As to caste, the devil in the still-pervasive system is that it can exclude from the conscience any feeling of duty outside of one’s own kin, reinforced by huge resentment against the Reservation system. Why help those who may get in first with their exemptions? This is not just a question affecting officials; it is much more serious than that.

One evening we see it in action. A dinner invitation for all of us, Sir and Madam too, comes from one of the richest men in the village, a really nice man. He lives in a splendid, rather garish house. He is thoughtful; he has made a great effort tonight, breaking his own vows to serve us beer in an upstairs room before we go down to a vegetarian dinner. He has known Sir and Madam for 30 years. He could do a lot – he could help them with transport, perhaps a shelter, perhaps just food from his hotel restaurant at festival time. But he has never given a penny to Sir and Madam’s efforts. It is not his business.

So no help from there, then. What about the rich temples of the South? They and some wealthy private schools give alms and run ‘camps’. The huge industrialists? They seem to concentrate on scholarships at the top end. The Tata Foundation helps the brightest (the ‘creamy layer’) with access and backing to Oxbridge and so forth.

No creamy layer where we sit the next morning, our emotions suffering badly. This is another remote little bridge school under the auspices of Sir and Madam. The state’s practical catch-up courses, combined with the huge, almost desperate desire of the children, are effective here. The place has been loaned by a retired doctor. A retired headteacher has lent us her vehicle and driver for the day. We meet a success – Yeshoda, an orphan who has been ‘capped’ as a nurse.

This cheers us up; but we have also been following a less uplifting drama. It concerns the new batch of students who have battled through and are now ready to sit their tenth-class exams. All they need now is the relevant official to sign the waiver to exempt them from exam fees, which, since they are so impoverished, is their right. Without the waiver, no exams, and no chance to cap these long years of struggle with entrance to a college. The relevant papers have been carried to this official’s office 13 times – 13 times – and he will not, he simply will not sign them. Sir and Madam staunchly will not bribe, even for this absolutely vital piece of paper. Bribe once and all is lost. For the 14th time Madam goes and waits and stares and waits further… and gets the reluctant signature.

Small coterie
Thus a few more children have fought their way up the ladder into vocational training. There is no state money for this, but we and others are putting in our mite. Nurses, auto-mechanics, inland fisheries workers, IT workers… India will have a small new coterie of skilled youngsters.

I ask Madam how many she and her husband have got through to such training this year from their various schools. She says it is 83: it would have been more but a couple of vital teachers gave up the effort and went off to town and better pay. Quite a few children failed as a result and had to return to their homes – literate, with school experience, but still unqualified. The chance had gone.

The latest Central Plan, the huge investment in India’s infrastructure, will build and widen many roads in a few years. But not this track, the rockiest and longest of them all

Eighty-three. I gaze out at the paddy-fields, the palmyras and the lovely coconut palms, the mud-huts, the brick-kilns, the tatty tents of the migrant workers. All that wonderful, huge effort to get 83 of them through. It will indeed be a very long journey. The latest Central Plan, the huge investment in India’s infrastructure, will build and widen many roads in a few years. But not this track, the rockiest and longest of them all. Here in Andhra Pradesh alone there are between two and four million children still out of school. Sir and Madam are in their seventies: who in India will replace them?

Barry Langridge has been BBC World Service Regional Head, Asia and Pacific Region, and Project Officer, India, for the British NGO Christian Aid.

New Internationalist issue 409 magazine cover This article is from the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop