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Kids turning soothsayers in TN

People in a Tamil Nadu village have put their children on work rather than sending them to school.

india Updated: Aug 21, 2006 15:35 IST

Murali wears a bright yellow head dress, a red shirt over a white veshti (loin cloth) and a dozen chains of rudrakhsa beads of various sizes - as also amulets and occult aids like animal tooth and a rattle.

His forehead smeared with vermilion and ash, this 12-year-old carries a four-inch-long palm scroll, bound by thread, which he opens out and offers to read your future.

Murali is a soothsayer - 'guduguduppandi' as they are called - who, like countless others, have been inducted into the business by their families at a young age instead of going to school.

"Their families feel that people pay more if children go soothsaying," Selvi, a volunteer teacher from the Shabnam Trust working among these children, tells IANS.

Selvi has the tough job of convincing the soothsayer clan of Boom Boom village, of Red Hills area in Thiruvallur district, about 35 km north of Chennai city, to send their children to school. Just one set of parents, Muthu and Jayanthi, have agreed to send two of their four children to the informal school the charitable trust runs.

"If our children's life changes, our lives will change," says Muthu, 35. He and his wife know no other kind of work.

"My family would wander from place to place and I soon realised I could not even read the name of the place we were in. I read by learning to recognise letters on roadside billboards," Muthu says.

In earlier times, local chieftains and prosperous villages maintained the soothsayers, who would go from house to house with a decorated cow and say good things about the inmates. They were not supposed to be astrologers.

The soothsayers from Red Hills area, outside the city, have now added foretelling the future to their bag of tricks.

The Red Hills area, once known as Vanniyachatram, had 146 lakes and an airstrip at Sholavaram. Locals say that around a hundred years ago this area was as prosperous as Singapore, with a thriving import bazar. Now the region is a picture of desolation.

Boom Boom village is a cluster of thatched roofs, with no roads and the government school five kilometres away.

After a year of steady intervention, Selvi has managed to convince the parents of about 10 of the 25 children from this community to go to the nearby Shabnam school.

"Destitute families and landless farm workers from Thiruvannamalai, Villupuram, and even as far away as West Bengal and Bihar rush here every year to make bricks. During the monsoon from October to February, when no bricks can be made, the families pack up and go away," says Shabnam Trust mentor Michael Hubert.

"There is no villain here, but the parents themselves, who put their kids to work," says Hubert.

Of India's estimated 44-million child labourers, Tamil Nadu accounts for nearly 150,000 - the highest concentration of child labourers in the world. They work in match factories, tobacco mills, teahouses, garages and rock quarries.

Even in Chennai's crowded Saidapet junction, you may come across child labourers like nine-year-old Valli who performs the balancing act across a rope with her family playing the drums. Chennai is among the 12 districts under the Child Labour Rehabilitation-cum Welfare Society, and yet, NGOs say 30,000 children in this city work.

Most of the children in Shabnam school, set up in 2003, were rescued from brick-making or basket-making and from local rice mills, or as duck and goat herds, explains Hubert. Many have run away from their drunken parents.

The children are all bright-eyed, reciting the 'Thirukkural' verses and the tables, singing songs, painting birds and going on environment campaigns.

"There are two types of children, those who go to school and those who don't," says Amuda, a teacher.

Teacher Girija herself grew up in a shelter, and went to support school. "I had to return to the community to help other children," she says.

The two-room Shabnam school has about 120 children and 12 teachers. The kids get a noonday meal, thanks to the Collectorate of Thiruvallur, and the ILO gives Rs.5 for each child.

The Tamil Nadu government has said it will contribute to the central government's 'Indus' project, supported by US aid, to free at least 10 districts of child labour.