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.
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 policy makers.
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 6 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 or non-payment of wages are constant threats or realities. Women
usually receive 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
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 are 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 life 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 makes 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.