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Since arriving in Jodhpur (has it been a month already?), I have come to appreciate the NGO that I work for, the Mine Labour Protection Campaign, for the wealth of experience and the wide variety of outreach and aid initiatives that it has brought to the impoverished, marginalized, and voiceless community of the Rajasthan’s mineworkers. At first, among all of the union formation and organization, awareness campaigns on occupational health and safety issues like asbestoses and silicosis, and the legal aid camps that MLPC runs in mining areas around the state, I felt a little lost. How could I—a white, nonHindi female with only one year of university under her belt—be of use to MLPC and create a project that would constructively impact the mineworkers and their families?
The answer proved to be more difficult to discover than I had expected while back in the States. But the water began to clear after my first field visit. Soon after joining MLPC, I traveled to the mines nearby Kota with two other interns and our supervisor at MLPC, Rana Sengupta. Most of the miners in the area work in the sandstone quarries, either extracting big slabs or processing the stone into small blocks called “cobles” with iron tools. I had read all about the issues plaguing the mine workers before we arrived: how they were underpaid, malnourished, illiterate and often times unable to access education for their children, addicted to alcohol or tobacco, refused health insurance or care, and thus susceptible to all sorts of diseases and injuries from the poor working conditions in the mines.
There is nothing like seeing it with your own eyes. I still can’t get the image of the mine out of my head: the gaping mouth of it, the men working jackhammers in rubber sandals without masks, goggles, or gloves, the women carrying stones back and forth on their heads in the 100+ temperatures, the children crouched on the slag heaps with hammers in hand. One woman was working in the sandstone quarry with her baby slung across her chest. Winding through the narrow dirt roads among the hills of scrap stone, we kept catching glimpses of children at work before we were recognized and the children were rushed out of sight.
In the mining settlement itself, we spoke through a translator to three separate families about their existences. One woman named Kamla—or I should say girl, as she was either fifteen or sixteen (she didn’t know)—spoke with us about her life; she responded to our eager smiles, hiding her face and giggling at times, and then got up to grab her eight-month-old son from his nap about halfway through our interview. Kamla, has been married for two years. She works for two hours in the mornings smelting and sharpening the mine workers’ tools sans protective gear for five to ten rupees a piece (conversion rate: 45 rupees is approximately one U.S. dollar) because her family is from the blacksmith caste. She knows no other trade, has never been to school, and started working at age ten. Her father passed away several years ago, and so her mother arranged her marriage with another boy from a nearby community when she was thirteen. Her husband, Bablu, has never been to school and also cannot read. Together with the rest of her family, they bring in about four hundred rupees per day in family income. Her little sister, who is seven, will go to work in a few years when she is old enough. When asked if she would send her son to school when he was old enough, she shook her head no. Her caste does not have a tradition of sending kids to school.
“School is only for rich people,” a fourteen-year-old boy, who had worked in the mines since he reached ten, told us. “All of my friends are in the mines.”The attitude towards education and sending children to school that prevailed in the mining settlements shocked me. I knew that most of the miners were illiterate but had assumed that the problem stemmed from a lack of funding and access to quality schools. Both of those rationales are certainly true for a great number of the families living around Kota, but the general apathy surrounding schooling seemed like an issue that I could help address through community outreach and an awareness campaign.
A few weeks after my field visit, another intern and I began to draw up plans for a workshop that we would run with members of the community, teachers from the local government school, mothers in the mine settlements, and the workers at the crèches, or daycare centers, that MLPC had already established in many areas around Rajasthan. At this workshop, we hope to distribute materials on the importance of education in concrete terms that would apply to the mineworkers’ lives, establish a sustainable link between the crèches and the government school by developing a committee with members from both, and provide information on the nearest government schools and the government schemes that mine workers can take advantage of for their children. We are also in the process of developing some basic educational resources for the crèche workers to utilize with the younger children to prepare them for the government school. While we are still in the planning stages on both projects, I hope that the work that we do will bring one more child through the school gates next year than would have otherwise.
Kamla struck me as one of the prettiest, most expressive people that I have ever met. Her favorite colors—pink, green, and yellow—and her shy smiles, however, gave away her youth. Talking with her, I realized that the only thing that separates us, that puts me in the place of a well-off, educated, independent American girl and her in the place of an illiterate, malnourished, underage mother, is chance. Enabling even one child to fight for his or her right to an education would more than compensate the two months that I will spend in Jodhpur with MLPC.