Bastu Rege is working with the informal labor force in the stone quarries of Maharashtra, a population estimated to be 3.5 to 5 million “identity-less” migrants who have been denied fundamental rights for decades. Bastu has set up a system of schools for the children of these workers called “Pashan Shala” i.e. quarry schools designed to serve this hard-to-reach group. The education model has grown from 119 children in 1997 to 92 schools in 2010 across 13 districts of Maharashtra. Pashan Shala is officially recognized as an innovative educational program under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan initiative of the Government of India, and a replicable model for children in similar circumstances across the country.
The New Idea
Bastu’s organization, Santulan, uses a broad schools intervention through the Pashan Shala system of non-formal education in stone quarries as an entry point to improve the living conditions of the workers in this sector. After creating a climate of trust and acceptance in an extremely difficult environment, Bastu has been able to mobilize the community and bring them together to demand their rights.
The children of stone quarry workers are mostly found breaking stones in the quarries alongside their parents, some starting as young as four-years-old. At the first layer of intervention, his aim is to take these children out of the stone quarry work and to empower, enable, and support them through easy access to education.
As a direct consequence, changes are taking place in the world of stone-quarry workers. Bastu has created a strategic window through which he infuses the process of change at multiple points. These changes are the most basic amenities which have been denied to workers for decades, including ration cards, access to public food distribution systems, health care services, insurance protection, voting registration, labor identity, housing, and sanitation, clean water, educational support and the dignity of life.
The stone quarry sector falls under the minor mining category and quarry ownership is dominated by those with strong links to political muscle power. Corruption is rampant, records are absent, (even in relevant government departments) and the administration has traditionally not shown the will to affect any positive changes in this sector. At the macro level of law and policy, advocacy and judicial action have been critical components of Santulan’s work, resulting in visible change. Bastu is currently engaging the government on the issue of changing the legal status of stone quarries.
According to Santulan, in Maharashtra (2009 to 10) there were around 17,720 stone quarries and an equal number of crushing machines with approximately 20 to 30 (2 to 3 million) lacs direct and indirect workers in the quarry, ground-breaking, and crushing sector. This does not include workers who are employed for stone breaking at the road side, on hills or skilled stone cutters. The labor force in these stone quarries is a faceless, floating population of migrant workers caught in a trap of poverty, working in a sector where even minimum wages are not guaranteed. Amenities at the stone quarries are negligible; shelter comprises tiny shacks half the height of an average human being, drinking water is unavailable, health care facilities do not exist, and since quarries are located in remote areas, all forms of abuse and exploitation go unseen and unreported.
Individuals have no proof of identity or address and remain uncovered by government policy and schemes that would otherwise benefit them. Without ration cards or birth and death certificates, some estimate that there are as many as 5 million workers in the state of Maharashtra alone. The women and children employed in this sector are among the most deprived, with children suffering the maximum injustices. According to the International Labor Organization, worldwide estimates for 2006 were 126 million children (i.e. 1 in 12) between the ages of 5 and 17 have worked in the worst forms of child labor, such as stone quarrying. According to Anti-Slavery International’s ILAB report of 2003, approximately 1 million children work in India’s stone quarries.
Legally, stone quarrying is recognized as a hazardous industry, but stone quarry work falls into the category of small-scale and labor intensive in the unorganized sector. As a result, legal provisions and government policies and administration systems to protect and provide for workers in this sector are inadequate.
Other states across India also have a strong stone quarry sector with a similar floating population of migrant labor. Statistics and documentation of basic numbers for this sector are unavailable because of its status as “minor.” Official reports on stone quarries do not include children on the workforce, show visual evidence of them, or have the correct number of quarries on paper, since illegal quarrying is rampant. Children working in stone quarries are a common sight. They are not contracted in any formal way; they are just there to help their parents. As a result, they receive nothing in the way of wages, rights, protection, government education schemes.
Bastu’s strategy with the Pashan Shala innovation at its core uses education for liberation and to facilitate the process of community change. It took ten years, 1997 to 2007, to design, refine, implement, and achieve government recognition for the Pashan Shala model, thus bringing in the resources available to government schemes e.g. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to this target population. The Pashan Shala design has three levels of schooling for three age groups; otherwise older children looking after younger siblings would never be available to attend school. Across districts these schools have a year-round documents-free admission based on the “Saptrangi” (Rainbow card) system, so that moving between quarries does not disrupt their schooling. A residential school system for older children has also been integrated into the Pashan Shala scheme, with teachers recruited and trained from the community.
Education is a strategic rallying point to bring together the worker community, train, and lead efforts at self-advocacy, unionizing and increasing the space and visibility of stone quarry workers’ issues on policy, legal, and administration platforms. As a part of the process of organizing the stone quarry workers, Bastu’s organization is causing critical shifts in the system that has for decades denied them basic rights and human dignity. Beginning by working with a handful of children in 1997, the decade saw struggles and successes on many fronts to benefit over a 100,000 stone quarry workers. Not only has he opted to organize the workers into lobbying groups, Bastu has even organized children and young people, bringing them together through democratic and non-violent protest marches and training them in advocacy tools, teaching them their rights, and bringing forth declarations to present to the government.
Successful interventions have resulted in many “firsts” for this segment, including processing ration cards for some families, government insurance coverage, health programs, electricity and water, educational scholarships, free legal aid, self-help groups, and the creation of a worker’s union and housing cooperatives.
Bastu’s organization, Santulan, was founded in 1997 and has since worked on varied developmental, legal, and advocacy policy issues. They have determinedly incorporated legal battles when necessary, such as a drinking water issue that was finally resolved over a four-year period; after rallies, legal notices, and public interest litigation in the Mumbai High Court. Bastu is currently engaged in talks with the government for the creation of a Stone Quarry Workers Board and a Stone Quarry Workers Protection Act. This is a first attempt in India to evolve legal infrastructure that focuses specifically on this sector.
Bastu grew up in rural India in a family of poor farmers, has experienced poverty and deprivation. This strengthened his determination to commit his life to the social development sector despite opposition from his father. Determined to complete his schooling and graduate, Bastu worked to put himself through a master’s degree in social work to increase his own capacity as a development professional (1995). Less than a decade later, in the middle of his interventions with stone quarry workers, he felt the need to bring a legal perspective to his work and attained a law degree (2004).
Bastu’s employment prior to setting up Santulan was with citizen organizations working on integrated development and capacity-building projects.
In 1997 Bastu began his work in the stone quarries motivated by an accident he witnessed which caused the death of a child by a stone crusher. His empathetic response to the extreme hardships faced by the children, women, and men at the stone quarries gained him the acceptance and trust of the workers, who came together to support the processes he initiated.
In the course of this work, Bastu and his associates have been at the receiving end of threats to their life and property, with their vehicles, office, and data being torched and destroyed by criminal elements with high stakes in the quarrying and mining sectors. However, it is the support of the worker community that ensures the continuing progress of Santulan’s work.