People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
May 14, 2006
the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – if it is effectively implemented
– is likely to have many positive consequences, one of the potential benefits
that has been inadequately recognised is how it may improve the welfare of
around 60 million children. These are children of migrant workers, who are
currently among those very adversely affected by the recent patterns of
increased material pressure which has driven adult men and women to short term
migration in search of work.
the evidence that we have. Both aggregate official data and all the available
micro studies suggest that there has been a very substantial increase in short
term economic migration in the recent past, driven by the reduced viability of
cultivation, displacement, asset deprivation and collapse of employment
generation in most parts of rural India.
more significant change recently has been the increased migration of women, with
men or in groups or even on their own.
course, this puts huge pressures and creates new possibilities for oppression of
women migrants, who are more vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, both
physical and material. While migration can be an important source of new
economic opportunities, distress migration among the poor, and especially of
poor women, tends to deepen existing inequalities, and make fragile and
vulnerable situations even worse. But the worst consequences may well be on the
children of such migrants, who are even less visible to policymakers.
recent study by Mobile Crèches ("Labour Mobility and the Rights of
Children," Mobile Crèches, New Delhi, March 2006) brings this out very
clearly. Using official data from the Census and NSSO, the study estimates that
there were about 30 million migrant women workers and 60 million children, of
whom around half were children under six years of age, in 2000.
dismal conditions of migrant workers in their places of work and temporary
residence are well known. Such workers generally do not receive the minimum
wages because of their inferior bargaining power, and late payment and
non-payment of wages are constant threats or realities. Women usually get
significantly lower wages, between half to two-thirds of what the men workers
receive. The works contracts are usually casual, insecure and highly
exploitative. The residence is usually in shanty towns or in temporary roadside
constructions, with little or nothing in the way of basic sanitation, access to
clean drinking water, and so on.
even apart from these features that make the quality of life very poor for the
migrant family as a whole, there are other features that impact directly on
children. Constant movement with no fixed abode, or residence in cramped,
unhealthy and restricted quarters is obviously undesirable. But for migrant
children, the problems may begin even before birth because of the pressures on
the mother which operate to reduce birth weight, then reduce possibilities for
breast feeding, then prevent regular immunisation, and then expose the child to
all sorts of infections because of poor sanitation and overcrowding.
are also other concerns. Migrant families do not have access to all the normal
rights of citizens because they are not seen as residents of the area where they
work. Therefore, the children do not have access to immunisation and other
health services, cannot attend anganwadis or local schools, and often simply
have to accompany their mothers at their workplaces such as construction sites.
These are unhealthy, often hazardous places for infant and young children who
end up spending most of their waking hours there. And there is very poor
nutrition available for growing children.
conditions lead to constant prevalence among such migrant children of a range of
illnesses including respiratory ailments and waterborne diseases. One 1998 study
of children of migrant workers at worksites showed that 53 per cent of the
children under five years were malnourished and 27 per cent were severely
migrants have been ignored by public policy, and thus face an insidious but
extensive system of social and economic discrimination, this is even more true
of the children of migrants, who are generally invisible to the public eye. Yet,
beyond the clichés of how children are the future of the country and so on,
there are huge dangers in allowing this neglect to continue.
is not just that early childhood is the period of maximum vulnerability,
physical and mental development and dependence upon adults, such that events and
processes in this period have long term repercussions for future capabilities
and life chances. It is also that the itinerant life with constant material
struggle for survival and lack of basic facilities make survival almost a
miracle that is seen as the result of tough and often individualistic choices.
The kernels of the future society that is thereby being created are surely full
of dark possibilities.
it is absolutely imperative for both society at large and government policy in
particular to make the issue of basic protection for migrant families and the
provision of public services and systems for migrants, including children, a