People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 20

May 14, 2006

Nowhere’s Children

Jayati Ghosh


WHILE 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.


Consider 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.


The more significant change recently has been the increased migration of women, with men or in groups or even on their own.


Of 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.


A 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.


The 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.


But, 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.


There 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.


These 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 malnourished.


If 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.


It 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.


So 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 basic priority.