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Student Service-Learning Program With Pratham In Mumbai

Raj Mundra

“Goodness without knowledge is weak …, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous”.  This quote central to the mission of Phillips Academy in Andover, MA was a central theme for a three week service-learning program this past June in Mumbai to explore the issue of children’s rights.  Faculty and students from Phillips Academy and the Udayachal School in Mumbai studied child labor injustices while interacting with students and staff at a Pratham shelter located on the fourth floor of the Old Masjid building in the heart of Crawford Market.  Located here were 42 children ages 10-14 years old who had been rescued from child labor situations all around Mumbai.  This shelter supported by Johnson & Johnson and run by local Pratham staff was helping to rehabilitate these children, get them ready for school, and help them make a smooth transition back to their communities.

During our orientation for the program, Phillips Academy students had an overview of Mumbai and India, read about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), read sections from the ASER 2007 report, discussed the struggle between economic development and human rights, and asked a key question, “What is social justice?”. Using Mumbai as our experiential classroom, we embarked with open eyes and ears on our work with Pratham.

In our initial meeting with Kishore Bhamre, Outreach Coordinator for Pratham-Mumbai, at the Pratham shelter site, we quickly gained a sense for the importance of achieving universal primary education in India.  We began to understand how the Child Labor Act, Minimum Wages Act and Juvenile Justice Act would serve as the legal framework to address child labor issues.   It was also clear that Pratham’s work involved the development of a paradigm shift of the general public towards children from a needs based approach to a rights based, holistic development strategy for each child.  Although overwhelmed by statistics and seeing abject poverty on our car ride to the Pratham shelter, we were inspired to learn how individuals in Pratham and the entire organization worked creatively with the government and corporate sectors to address the large scale and complex problem of child labor in Mumbai.

We were eager to work with the children at the shelter and for the first few days we simply took time to get to know each other and share our stories. Working in groups of 4  (1 Phillips Academy, 1 Udaychal, 2 Pratham), the students quickly became comfortable and started to play games and share personal stories with each other.   Students from the Udayachal school were both participants and translators in the groups which facilitated the communication between the Phillips and Pratham children.

Equipped with digital cameras, the Phillips students taught the Pratham children basic photography within a few days.  We discussed lighting, angles, action vs. posed photos, capturing themes, …  The photojournalism project involved the Pratham students taking photographs in their neighborhoods and capturing the influences (positive and negative) in their lives.  With the guidance of Pratham staff, we went into the communities of the children in the Pratham shelter.  We traveled by local train to slum areas in Gowandi and Malad to visit communities that still had child laborers working in small zari factories.  While the Pratham students worked diligently to capture appropriate photographs, the Phillips students visited homes, listened carefully to people in the community, and started to ask basic questions about child labor and poverty: What are the root causes of these problems? What is being done? What can be done?  How can we help?

In the following days, after debriefing the community visits, writing in journals and reading more articles, we had an opportunity to meet with the Labor Minister of Maharashtra, Ganesh Naik.  His entire ministry gave a historical and legal presentation on the government’s role with regards to child labor in the state.  They discussed their pledge to eradicate child labor by 2010 in Maharashtra and acknowledged that they needed to work with agencies like Pratham to engage citizens in this struggle.  We invited the ex-child laborers from Pratham to this meeting and they posed some of the most poignant questions directly to the Minister. 

Towards the end of our program, we developed, framed and mounted the photographs from the Pratham children at the Cymroza Art Gallery in South Bombay for a one day photoexibition on June 26th titled, “EXPOSURE: Mumbai’s Unseen Heroes”.  The jaws of the Pratham children dropped when they saw their photographs on the wall and they took great pride in explaining their backgrounds to the public.  Michael Owen, Counsel General of the US Consulate in Mumbai, served as chief guest and wrote in follow-up letter: “I was particularly interested in hearing about the work of the NGO Pratham …  Your students [from Phillips Academy] got a great opportunity to learn about children’s rights and life in some of Mumbai’s slums, and my conversations with them certainly made it clear that it was a very enriching and broadening experience.  It was equally interesting to meet some of the children from Pratham, and to see their incredible enthusiasm and determination.”

In the months following the program, I have noted how inspired Phillips Academy and Udaychal students have become once they saw ways in which they can make a real difference in the world.  Students have raised awareness of child labor issues through making presentations, conducting fundraisers, becoming more involved in the school’s community service program, starting a pen-pal program, and debriefing their experience through classes at Phillips Academy.  One student reflected, ‘Now, due to my recent encounters, I have seen (to some extent) the severity of the issue of children’s rights.  I plan to play my own part in the world-scale social change by first revisiting, re-examining, and re-ordering my own views and then altering my actions in order to work toward better situations for people all over the world.  I could not have come to this conclusion without having seen the true state of the world first-hand, leaving my comfort zone, a 15 hour plane ride, and a seemingly countless number of miles (or, should I say kilometers?) away.”

The photographs from the Pratham children and the work of the Pratham staff in Mumbai remind us to struggle with the basic questions related to social justice, the root causes of poverty, and the number of ways in which we can become involved in causes we care deeply about.

 Phillips Academy is organizing the Niswarth program again this year and in addition a few more faculty members will join the program to learn more about India.

Here are more quotes from students in the program including Tori Wilmarth from Andover, MA and Trisha Macrae from San Francisco, CA:

"[This was] an amazing experience...not only was it a unique foray into the principles of justice, but it also served as a form of cultural immersion and a chance to meet new people.  This experience, because all three of the above balanced each other, was so much more than I'd expected and is an experience I'd love to have again."

"I have loved this program!  I think one of its greatest strengths is its variety.  we were able to see the issue of children's rights from many different perspectives.  This allowed us to fully address the problem."

"This project has inspired me to throw myself farther into community service."

"This program gave the problem of violations against children a face, a name, a personality.  Getting to know the students has empowered me to continue to be involved in children's rights.  My passion for this global problem has increased greatly."

To learn more about the program, contact Raj Mundra, Instructor at Phillips Academy, at rmundra@andover.edu.

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