On 1 July, Neeraj Murmu from Jharkhand was conferred with the Diana Award 2020 through a virtual ceremony for his fight against child labour.
“Education is of no use to me if I cannot share it with others. It was education that pulled me out of mica mines and child labour. Winning the prestigious Diana Award is only a reminder that I have to double my efforts in educating the underprivileged so that they don’t go through what I went through,” the 22-year-old from Giridih’s Duliyakaram village tells The Better India.
The Diana Award was established in 1999 to honour those who have demonstrated exemplary humanitarian work. Neeraj was one of 23 young Indians who received it this year. He even started a free school for children who cannot afford it.
Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi confirmed the news on Twitter and lauded Neeraj, who was freed from the shackles of child labour by Kailash’s foundation ten years ago.
“What a proud moment for me, my organisation & India! My son Neeraj Murmu won prestigious 2020 Diana Award for his exemplary work in spreading education. He was a child labourer in dangerous mica mines till 2011,” Kailash said.
After he was rescued, Neeraj followed his role model and ‘lifesaver’ to set up a local school for children in his village in 2018. In the last two years, his school, ‘Kailash Satyarthi’ has educated over 200 impoverished children and rescued 20 child labourers from the hazardous occupation of mica mining.
Escaping From A Catastrophic Occupation
Neeraj was born in a poor tribal family where one cooked meal was shared by a family of seven throughout the day. On good days, Neeraj and his siblings got two meals.
His farmer-father was the sole bread earner until Neeraj started working at the age of nine. Meanwhile, his mother does mining work.
In such deprived circumstances, going to school was out of the question, and the only option was ‘family mining’, which is very common in parts of Jharkhand and Bihar. Children and parents excavate the mineral that adds the sparkle in cosmetics and car paint.
“Since children have small frames and tiny hands, they can easily reach the narrow mine shaft to sort the tiniest mica pieces. Parents do not mind putting their child’s life at risk as long as they get money,” says Raju Singh. He is an activist with Bal Mitra Gram (child-friendly village) Programme started by the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF) in the 1960s across India to end child labour. The programme spreads awareness about child labour and helps parents register their kids in schools.
Children are also exposed to lung damage and respiratory diseases from inhaling dust. Often, the minors die after drowning in the rubble. As per a 2016 Reuters report, children who died in mines were not reported to bring down the death rate. Neeraj is among thousands of children who were robbed of their childhood and spent their early days in excavating raw materials.
When KSCF came to Duliyakaram, Neeraj was one of the few fortunate children whose parents understood the risks and enrolled him in a government school.
Starting A Mission
Neeraj was admitted to class eight. He shares, “My father is a class six dropout, and he taught me the basics. School was a whole new world for me, where I made friends, had mid-day meals, and of course, a proper education. I got my childhood back.”
It was probably for the first time that he had more than one meal in a day and played with children his age.
Realising the significance of education, he swore he would carry forward Kailash’s mission. The journey was not comfortable. From failing in exams, he went on to top his classes, working his way up by studying on his own with sincerity and dedication.
After completing his schooling, Neeraj moved to Chennai for a diploma in engineering on a scholarship offered by an NGO. But he had to drop out in the second year in 2017 due to health issues.
He moved back to his village and completed his intermediate privately, without additional guidance. This gave him the confidence to start a school; a teacher’s strike around the time propelled his dream.
“Due to a teacher’s strike in a government school, many students had to drop out and spend more time at the mines. Some were susceptible to child labour. I rented a room in a villager’s house and started my school with a whiteboard,” says Neeraj, who is pursuing his BA in Political Science from The Indira Gandhi National Open University.
He runs the school for classes 1-8 with his sister, who is also studying Arts, and a friend. The school does not have benches, but the trio’s determination is keeping the momentum going. Neeraj is planning to apply for a certificate to register his school with the state board.
To sustain themselves, Neeraj takes private tuitions.
Rescuing Child Labourers & Future Plans
Neeraj joined the Bal Mitra Gram in 2013 and has been an active member since. He has rescued 20 minors from the clutches of child labour with Raju, who is also his mentor.
From convincing parents about how education can help the family, to counselling children who put their lives in danger for meagre amounts, Neeraj has been spreading awareness and enrolling such children in his school.
Now that his village has become child-friendly, Neeraj and the team are focused on other villages in the district.
Impressed by his efforts, the local government heads have joined him in his fight. “Sometimes, the villagers give me a lead about a child working in the mines instead of going to school. We aim to achieve this level of awareness everywhere,” adds Neeraj.
It is the support from his family and villagers, and validations like the Diana Award that keeps Neeraj motivated in his inspiring endeavour So what’s next for him?
“After completing my BA, I want to complete B.Ed so that I can open more schools and give a new life to underprivileged children,” says Neeraj. He wishes to study further and doesn’t plan to stop studying and teaching until his last breath.
You can get in touch with Neeraj at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)