Migrant labourers with language barrier are in worse situation
At the sight of a small group of children heading toward the gate of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) premises in Purasawalkam here, Santoshi starts crying. Waiting for over three hours in the lane leading to the premises, she says: “I am hoping I will get to take my daughter with us at least today.” However, it was too soon for her to know.
On Friday morning, the lane off Purasawalkam High Road that leads to the Child Welfare Committee premises had several families waiting. Each of them, evidently anxious, had a different story to tell.
Migrant labourers are in an even worse situation, for language and other barriers related to logistics leave them with little choice but to spend all their energy and time running around and visiting the CWC premises multiple times.
Santoshi is a migrant labourer from Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh. She and her husband Gabbar came to Chennai about one-and-a-half months ago. “We take up daily wage labour, largely construction,” says Gabbar. The couple has three children and Lakshmi, their eldest daughter, eight years old, “was taken away” on Pongal day.
“We had gone to the beach on Pongal day. It was very crowded and Lakshmi wanted to buy a sweet in a nearby stall. I went along and before we could pay for the sweets, two women police personnel and one male member grabbed her hand. They forcefully took her away. I screamed, but they would not listen,” says Santoshi, breaking down again.
The CWC, functioning under the Department of Social Defence, has the primary function of caring for “neglected” or “abandoned” children. Personnel from the Juvenile Aid Protection Unit rescue such children and bring them to the CWC, in addition to NGOs and other citizens contacting the child helpline.
According to sources in the unit, as many as 318 children were rescued in 2011 and in 2012 so far, a total of 49 children have been rescued.
Every day about three to four beats (teams of two members of the unit) set out on “rounds” at different spots, such as railway stations, bus terminuses, or busy market areas. “We look for children without slippers, dressed in rags or those who look helpless. I have been motivating my teams to rescue at least one child every day,” said an official.
Following the rescue, the CWC follows a detailed procedure, involving enquiries on the child's parents and background and whether he/she was going to school.
Depending on the current situation of the child, the CWC decides to rehabilitate the child by putting them in a school, offering medical and psychological support, or, give the child back to the parents, in cases where the Committee is sure of the parents' identity and of their ability to send the child to school once returned. However, the procedure takes a lot of time.
Santoshi and Gabbar, along with a few other workers, have been coming to the CWC every day since Pongal. “We were asked for a copy of our ration card as proof and we produced it. Then, they asked us to get it translated from Hindi to English. We roamed around in this area and Poonamallee High Road, but no shop agreed to do that and we are back here again,” says Gabbar.
During the week, the couple met Lakshmi thrice. “She would weep and ask when we will take her with us. We told her we would come on Friday and that is why we are here.”
Pullamma and Venkateswarulu from Machilipatnam, Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh, were waiting for an update on their 10-year-old-daughter Sandya Priyanka. As construction labourers, Venkateswarulu makes Rs.300 every day, while Pullamma gets a daily wage of Rs.200. “We were near Anna Salai and she went to buy a bun. Suddenly, we found her missing…we were later directed to this place. In addition to our ration card, they asked for her school certificate and we have brought it today,” says Pullamma, showing a letter attested by their District Educational Officer. Some parents say they are happy with the care given at the CWC's reception home, but the separation can be painful. “The food and place is okay, but the child misses us a lot,” says another mother, waiting for her son.
The CWC has a thorough process to check the identity, for it cannot afford to hand over a child to abusive adults, or send the child back to circumstances that threaten their safety and Right to Education.
According to P. Manorama, chairperson, CWC, language is often an issue. When it is a Hindi or Telugu-speaking family, they manage with volunteers. “But sometimes, we find it hard communicating with families that speak Oriya or Manipuri.”
“Even today (Friday), a nomadic family came to us saying one of their children had gone missing. Since they did not have any documents to validate their identity, we are trying to take the help of an NGO,” Ms. Manorama says.
According to S. Kannayiram, former field officer of the Social Welfare Department, it is the duty of the Probation Officer assigned to the child to talk try and speak to the child and get information, by all possible means – identify their vernacular language with the help of a translator or understanding the situation of the child by spending time with him or her.
“Enquiring details of the child's extended family and observing the relationship of the child with the people claiming ownership is also sometimes important for taking a decision on the next step. It is not advisable for the committee to blindly follow procedures and ask for documents, since many of the migrant families leave their documents in their native place,” he says.
A more systematic and efficient process, which is also transparent, can help prevent further victimisation of parents or migrant labourers, who are often in a disadvantageous position already, say activists working in the area of child rights and protection.
Vidya Reddy of Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing Child Sexual Abuse says no documentation that substantiates the orders is provided to the family or the complainant. “What can a migrant workers' family make of an order? There is no advice available on the next possible recourse. Sadly, the Juvenile Justice system is designed as one that addresses issues of those in a socio-economically disadvantaged position. We see that the delivery of services to this section is always poor.”
For those like Santoshi, the pain is not so much in losing wages or waiting endlessly, but it is in not knowing what exactly needs to be done, how to go about it, and when her little daughter will come back.