11-year-old Habil* is engaged in an intense mobile game. Gunshots echo in his dimly lit room. Alone, he sits the entire day waiting for his parents to come home in the evening. His mother works at a plywood company half a kilometer away. While his father is a daily wage labourer and he goes wherever his work takes him. It’s 3:30 pm. The khichdi prepared by his mother at dawn and fish from last night remains untouched. Habil has neither been to school nor to his native of Nadia (West Bengal). His current home for the last 6 years is in Ernakulam (Kerala).
Habil’s story is not unique. In the past 3 weeks alone, I along with my colleagues at the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) went around migrant pockets of Perumbavoor. We identified more than 75 out-of-school children, 80% of whom had never gone to school. While the rest, particularly those above the age of 10, had some form of formal education in their native states. In the situation analysis exercise conducted by us, households were chosen randomly and 30% of the out-of-school children identified were girls.
The International Labour Organization classifies these children as “nowhere children” i.e., neither in school nor in the labour force in order to include and categorize them independently.
With growing trends of family migration in India, the enumeration of migrant children in particular is a huge data gap with harmful consequences. Irrespective of whether the children follow their parents to destinations (work locations) or stay back with a single parent/relative – the impact on their well-being, education, and overall development is immense.
Decisions of the community in a faraway land
There are many observations and writings that tell you how a community acts as a catalyst to migrate for work. The community provides support and trust. Almost every migrant will tell you about a relative or a neighborhood friend who got them to work in this faraway land. It is thus predictably similar in terms of understanding access to educational opportunities.
“If the neighbor also sends their child I will consider”. 5 year old Rouja’s* mother was keen to send her child with her friend who works at the same company. But as soon as the friend decided to send her child back home, Rouja’s mother immediately showed hesitance in sending her. Even when we identified children nearby who would accompany her, her mother still denied. 7 months since then, Rouja accompanies her mother to the plywood factory.
The above example may be too small to generalize but the family structure was observed to be crucial in the attitude towards education. Finding the nearest government school, communicating with administration/teachers, or any follow-up regarding learning is a challenge for migrants. And it becomes more difficult for single working migrant mothers.
Most of these single mothers belong to religious minorities or vulnerable communities with abysmal literacy. These women live alone in a new place or sometimes with new partners. There is an increased risk of sexual exploitation in such relationships as well as a lack of agency, as generally observed due to patriarchal gender roles. We observed mothers were very eager to enroll their kids in school. But they could not travel independently to school or get the required permission from their partners.
Schools and inclusiveness
It is not as if the schools stood with open arms for admitting migrant children either. There is a severe language constraint that impedes even basic communication with parents/children. The general prejudice of lack of hygiene, drug abuse, etc. is targeted only towards migrants.
Migrants are also document-poor. Most children do not have their Aadhaar card. Many do not even have their birth certificate. Even after the Supreme Court of India ruled that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for school admissions, schools across the country deny enrolling children based on that.
In Kerala, all government and aided schools are mandated to digitally submit details of admissions for the academic year. There are multiple challenges to this :
- The form mandates the Aadhaar details of the child. There are also guidelines by the Centre on the responsibility of schools to enroll using an affidavit by parents, other documents or even facilitating an Aadhaar enrolment drive at school. In the past, many schools have straightaway rejected children. They have not even done the bare minimum of explaining the procedures to the families.
- The admission cycle and the migration calendar are not in consonance. What that means is that many children come to Kerala in July or later. Whereas the admission cycle ends in June. There is a reluctance to admit these children to the school.
- These children are not being enumerated for school records of Midday meals, free books, other allowances, etc.
The Right To Education (RTE) was envisaged as universal, compulsory education of children up to the age of 14 years children having pre-conditions that lead to a denial of basic rights. The reality goes completely against the purpose of the legislation. There should be suitable solutions to resolve the problems arising out of the admission applications post the Sixth working day. That is not a benevolent favor by the State but a fundamental Right of the children.
The issue with languages is also not one that can be easily resolved with just the local teachers learning Hindi. There are children who somehow manage to pick up Malayalam here in Kerala and then have to migrate back to their home state. Some children accompany their parents for half year in Kerala and the other half in their native. Many kids join the school in a mid-academic year. It is not only a new learning space but also a socially and culturally different environment for them. First-generation learners who are unable to get academic support at home face severe hardships throughout the year.
How safe are our children?
While holistic development and education are paramount, there is also a growing safety concern for out-of-school children. As this piece was being written (10 February, 2023), a migrant girl playing near a water body in a plywood factory fell and drowned. Anganwadi timings are inconvenient for working parents to pick up and drop off the children. They are forced to take their kids, as young as three-year-olds to their worksites. Children who do not go to school are seen either accompanying their parents to such hazardous workplaces or sitting alone at home, making them vulnerable to physical and sexual exploitation.
The ‘Kerala Model’ famed for its public education system has the potential to transform the lives of migrants, with arguably a better education system than most source states/regions from where they migrate. It could be an avenue for the coming generations to be able to access the same. To deny these basic rights to even one child is grossly unjust and requires both policy action, political will, and societal change.