Mr. Rampal, Co-ordinator
Near Rambhavan Chowraha
Shankargarh, Allahabad District,
Uttar Pradesh 212108
Tel : 05333 - 22427
Digging deep
Sankalp empowers the mineworkers of Shankargarh.
Mail this page to a friend
This article is by an independent author and reproduced from The United Nations Development Program's 'Children and Poverty' website, with permission.

The Shankargarh area, of Allahabad District in Uttar Pradesh, is famous for its silica mines. However, the erstwhile Raja of Shankargarh has mining rights in perpetuity to the 46 villages covering an area of 150 square kilometres that make up this area. The Raja leases out plots to contractors who in turn employ local villagers, the majority of them landless and bonded labourers, at extremely exploitative rates. Since three-fourths of Shankargarh is rocky and unfit for cultivation, the local population has no other source of income than mining.

Stone quarry in Shankargarh

Stone quarry in Shankargarh.

Shankargarh is a backward area despite the rich mineral resources that it has and despite the revenues that the state gets from mining. Illiteracy rates are high, as is child labour. The majority of the landless labourers are tribals at the bottom of the social heap. This area is characterised by rigid caste and class hierarchies expressed in terms of hostility towards the lower castes and frequently violence, threats, robberies, and assaults on women.

Sankalp was formed in 1994 by social activists drawn from the J.P. (Jayaprakash Narayan) Movement. It works with the silica mineworkers of Shankargarh to make their lives better. A multidimensional approach is followed that involves making them aware of their rights under the Indian Constitution, uniting them in their struggle for just wages, campaigning for leases to be given to workers' co-operatives, forming workers' co-operatives and empowering them to apply for mining leases, releasing them from bonded labour, and advocating adult literacy, education for children and the elimination of child labour. Sankalp has developed an approach that tackles the fundamental issues of assuring work/income security for parents as a prior condition to eliminating child labour. This is a very powerful approach and perhaps the only one that can work under the extreme conditions of poverty and exploitation one finds in Shankargarh.

From my observations of the work of Sankalp, I have listed the following key aspects. This article is intended to raise issues and questions, rather than make judgements.

  Steps taken to eliminate child labour

Sankalp is approaching the issue of child labour from the angle of ensuring work security for parents. From the organisation's experience in running non-formal education classes for the children of mineworkers, and from a survey of out-of-school children in the 5-14 age group, the following major findings were obtained.

  • The parents have no rights to the means of production; their wages are low; and they are bonded to the contractors. They have no option but to make their children work.

  • The main reason for children dropping out is the quality of education in the government schools. Frequently, one teacher is responsible for 250-300 children. Many villages do not have a school, and where schools exist, teacher absenteeism is high.

  • Children belonging to lower castes face discrimination in school. Almost all upper caste children go to school. Invariably, teachers also belong to upper castes and their tendency is to discourage lower caste children from attending school. In the words of one headmaster "If all the children are educated then who will do our work?"

Sankalp is attempting to secure income and employment for the parents to take away the root cause of their inability to send their children to school. The parents are being empowered to demand better conditions, better wages, and control over their livelihood, so that they will send their children to school. In the three villages that have been successful in getting mining leases and where the villagers have occupied mining lands - through the efforts of Sankalp - all children are being sent to schools and in fact even adult literacy classes have begun.

It remains to be seen if mindsets will change to an extent that they will continue to educate their children even if they do lose the mining lease in future. It also remains to be seen if empowerment in one sphere is going to spill over automatically into positive changes in other areas such as health, nutrition, status of women, dowry, child marriage, addiction, and expenditure on unproductive activities like marriage and deaths which is one of the key reasons for indebtedness. Sankalp has its task cut out in ensuring such a broad transformation.

  Formation of mining co-operatives

I don't know how if the system of giving mining leases to worker's co-operatives is an established practice in the rest of India, but perhaps it is not too widespread. To this extent, Sankalp has won a major battle by ensuring that pattas are given by lease and not by auction and that miner's co-operatives are eligible to apply for them. Sankalp has formed 48 self-help groups (samooh) and 40 of these have already applied for leases. If this system works, it could be a model that could be demanded by mine workers elsewhere in the country and could be linked to the fight for eliminating child labour and bonded labour in this most exploitative of industries.

  Empowerment of villagers

Sankalp has taken a confrontational approach in its fight for rights. In 15 villages, the mineworkers have captured lands under lease to the Raja and started mining because the contractors refused to give them work. After attempts at negotiation failed, they decided to squat on the lands and start mining on the grounds that the lease in perpetuity to the Raja was illegal and was encouraging exploitation, bonded labour and child labour. We visited Ramna Bargarhi - one such village - and spoke to the villagers. We were told that earlier they were indebted and afraid of the contractors but with unity, their strength had increased. Their incomes had trebled, indebtedness had decreased, all children were being sent to school and the adults had started literacy classes. They were being taught by Ram Kumar - one of their own - who having completed class 8 was the most educated person in the village!

The process of uniting against the contractors and the Raja has shown the mineworkers that if they are united they can demand their rights in other spheres as well. This feeling of empowerment has spilled over into the sphere of education as well. We were told that villagers now regularly check on the government schools and complain if the teacher is absent. They have taken to locking the village school if the teacher fails to show up, in this way bringing teacher absenteeism to the attention of the education department. There is a growing realisation that in order to improve the school system, the teacher will have to be made into an ally and not an enemy but right now the only way they can get attention is by taking a confrontational approach. One has to bear in mind the total disregard shown by the state and politicians for the conditions of these people.

Sankalp hopes that with increased awareness and empowerment the mineworkers will seek to bring about changes in other areas such as health, panchayats etc. This work has not yet begun but will form a fascinating aspect in the development of the organisation. We were told that with increased incomes, the mineworkers were now sending their children to school, eating better and building homes for themselves. I wondered if they were also spending more on dowry, alcohol, cigarettes, and other addictions! As stated earlier, these are areas that will have to be dealt with in future.

  Strengthening the education system

At present Sankalp is running 25 bachpana kendras - at first they were run as non-formal education centres but these were not very successful so they are now run as full-time schools. The teachers at the bachpana kendras have received training from the Vikram Sila Society - an education resource training centre based in Calcutta. This training has been very useful in improving the pedagogical skills of the teachers and in helping them to get away from rote learning. Even children from the government schools have started attending the bachpana kendras now. We were told that they are seen as an entry point and the aim is to close them down and make the government schools functional but how this will be done was not clear.

  Crucial link between field activists and Board

At first glance there appears to be some discontinuity between the field activists and the ideologues in Sankalp - the doers and the thinkers. The former belong to Shankargarh, are well entrenched in the local scenario; and have to confront the local power structures at some risk to themselves. The latter are from Allahabad town, are employed in diverse professions like teaching, law etc., and appear to be giving directions from a safe distance. This separation is also a source of strength as the Allahabad based board performs a useful function in lobbying government, courting media (incidentally, Sankalp has been very successful in getting coverage in the national and local media about the plight of the mineworkers and their struggles), and taking on legal battles. However, this is a relationship that needs to be watched.

Sankalp is not a static organisation - it has been growing and taking on new challenges. However, the work it has embarked on at present is likely to lead to new and uncharted areas. These include strengthening the educational system, tackling a range of social issues, moving away from confrontation to seeking partnerships and collaborations with government, panchayats and other local players. Will it be able to move from a confrontational to a collaborative mode? The organisation has huge potential. The crucial question is whether it will be able to rise to this challenge or not.

Rekha Wazir
June 2001

[ Author's note: This report has been written on the basis of a short visit to Sankalp on 12 March, 2001 that included discussions with Sankalp staff at their Shankargarh office, field visits to several villages where the organisation works, discussions with villagers in Ramna Bargarhi and Ghond villages, and a meeting with the Board of Sankalp in Allahabad. I was accompanied by Dr. Vasudeva Rao, Consultant, UNDP.]

  • Related: Read other stories from Uttar Pradesh.
  • Feedback: Tell us what you think of this article.