Among the many things that the state’s claims of a near-full enrollment rate at civic schools fails to capture, is the plight of the children of migrant workers who are building the city.
Children scampering over rubble, babies wailing in cradles suspended from girders and families squatting in makeshift shanties is a common sight at construction sites. With male labourers earning as little as Rs 120 a day and women’s wages lesser than half of that, these families cannot afford to send their children to schools.
An estimated 50,000 children of construction labourers live on these sites in the city and are either completely deprived of or make do with inadequate schooling. Many farm labourers from rural Maharashtra, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh migrate to bigger cities to work at these sites.
However, neither do they have extended families to take care of the children, nor are there sufficient childcare facilities that they can avail. These children loiter around on the construction sites through the day unsupervised, endangering their lives.
Although the Right to Education (RTE) Act states that every child must go to school, being on the move deprives these children of formal schooling.
“Most children move from site to site with their parents, so there is no way to guarantee continuous education,” said a senior education official from the Mumbai division of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, the main vehicle for the implementation of the RTE. “This causes them to struggle with studies and they end up dropping out of school,” he added.
The official added that another hindrance for migrants from other states was that they do not speak Hindi, the main language of instruction. “This is a major barriers that leads to illiteracy. These workers neither know how to approach schools, nor have the documents needed for their children to get admission into schools,” he said.
On most construction sites, children do not even have access to pre-schools or balwadis. This is despite the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, stating that crèches must be built at all large construction sites with at least 50 women. However, most states in the country flout this rule.
Further, there are only a few non-government organisations working for these children in the city. Mumbai Mobile Crèches (MMC) is the only organisation which actively works towards educating children of migrant workers. “The government needs to implement laws to ensure children on construction sites have access to care and safety,” said Vrishali Pispati, CEO, Mumbai Mobile Crèches.
Although in many places, NGOs would run temporary schools or learning centres offering bridge courses for the children, the RTE Act forced them to shut down as they were considered unrecognised and hence illegal.
It was after recent protests by activists from all over the state that a nine-member committee was formed to look into the problems of children of migrant workers.
“We’ve tried to explain to authorities that such schools are necessary for these children who can’t afford formal schools,” said BN Rege, founder-director of an NGO that was fighting for the cause.