A poignant struggle to fit in

The children of migrant workers in Kerala face numerous unseen struggles, including crime, punishment sometimes simply for being ‘outsiders’, and the lack of stability. M.P. Praveen reports on the State’s attempts at integration, to ensure health and safety 

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:59 pm IST

Published - January 19, 2024 12:17 am IST

Satheesh Vellinezhi

Satheesh Vellinezhi | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

When eight-year-old Diya (name changed) stopped coming to school a week before the Christmas vacation, her teachers noticed. Originally from Kolkata, and the child of a migrant worker, Diya had been enrolled in Government LP School, in Eloor, Ernakulam district, Kerala, a couple of months before. She was a lively child, fluent in Malayalam. Her Standard III class teacher Simi Joseph reported her absence to the school authorities, who chose to wait since many from the migrant community frequently went back to their hometowns for brief durations.    

“When she didn’t turn up even after school reopened in the New Year, we alerted the councillor of her division in Eloor municipality. We lodged a petition with the Eloor police as well,” said Siby Augustine, headmaster, Government LP School, Eloor, an industrial township about 12 kilometres away from Kochi city.

It emerged that she, along with her father who worked in a scrap shop, was allegedly beaten up and scared away from their accommodation by the shop manager on the night of December 30. She was also allegedly locked up in a room during the melee.

Thanks to the insistence of the school authorities and the councillors of Eloor municipality, they were tracked down from another scrap shop near Edappally on January 4.

“My school bag was thrown out of the room. My father was beaten up. We weren’t allowed to stay back in the room at least till the next morning. We spent the night on the veranda of a liquor shop,” the child recollected later to the police.

The Eloor police have since then registered a case against the manager under IPC Section 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and relevant provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.  

“She was with us till April 2023 when her father was imprisoned for some petty theft. He then took her away saying that they were returning to West Bengal. We never knew they had come back to Kerala,” said Sreekumar C., director, SOS Children’s Village, Aluva. The not-for-profit organisation runs homes for the holistic development of uncared for children, and among its current girl residents, seven are migrants below 18 years.  

Case of abduction  

While Diya’s tale brought back into sharp focus the issues of the health and safety of migrant children, there have been other more difficult experiences. A five-year-old migrant girl was abducted from the Choornikkara panchayat near Aluva town. She was raped and murdered, and her body found in a rundown market on July 29, 2023. The accused, Asafak Alam, 29, from Bihar, who has since been given the death penalty, had moved into the victim’s neighbourhood just before. 

“Since migrants often tend to stay in clusters where affordable housing is available, perpetrators of crimes against migrant children also happen to be mostly migrants,” observed Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID).  

The incident triggered a clamour for creating a database of migrant workers. The Ernakulam Rural police have launched registration of the community and conducted awareness campaigns about safety of migrant children. The number of registered migrants has by now exceeded 1.5 lakh.  

“The police also held an adalat (forum) in Perumbavoor, which has a large population of migrant community, for hearing their grievances,” said Vaibhav Saxena, District Police Chief (Ernakulam Rural).  

The Aluva incident spurred the Education department into action with emphasis on migrant students’ safety. “Immediately after the incident, we issued a circular to schools to take the abrupt absence of migrant students seriously. School authorities were asked to visit the homes of such children to verify the reason for their absence. This was the reason the school in Eloor promptly acted following the absence of a migrant student,” said Honey G. Alexander, Deputy Director of Education, Ernakulam.  

“Our children would not have even gone to school had we stayed back in Odisha. Here, link workers, mostly from the migrant community itself, have been appointed to interact with fellow migrants and instil in them the importance of educating children. As a result, migrant children are now mostly going to schools and are performing well,” said Rajendra Naik, 39, who had moved in to Perumbavoor from Kandhamal district in Odisha four years ago. He is now settled here with his wife and two daughters aged 12 years and eight years. Employed in a plywood company, he also serves as a link worker in charge of 27 wards in Kunnathunadu taluk.

Eloor municipality, where Diya had her tragic experience, has taken the safety of migrant children more seriously. “We have embarked on a study to assess the condition of migrant children, especially in divisions with large migrant population, for targeted intervention,” said A.D. Sujil, Eloor municipal chairperson.  

Highly vulnerable  

However, it is not the same with all local bodies. Perumbavoor municipality, which has the largest concentration of migrant population in the district, has no authentic database or the financial wherewithal to devise welfare programmes for migrant children. “Atrocities faced by migrant children are far more than what is being reported. Children are highly vulnerable when they are left alone while the parents are away on work. That criminal elements mix with the migrant population makes the threat graver,” said Zakeer Hussain, Perumbavoor municipal chairman, who urged the State government to popularise initiatives like the crèches with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding.  

District Collector N.S.K. Umesh said focus was indeed on opening more crèches in strategic points. “We have started one exclusively for migrant children at Vengola (near Perumbavoor). Another one is likely to open in Aluva shortly. We are also looking at increasing the wages of staff deployed in crèches and to deploy multi-lingual instructors,” he said.  

The creche in Vengola is the first in the State to be set up by the district administration using CSR funds. An incident in which a toddler drowned in a wastewater pit at a plywood company, where the parents were working, triggered the initiative. Crucially, it functions between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. ensuring that children are not left uncared for at any point.  

“Migrant parents not prioritising children’s education remains a problem. That is reflected in how children are packed off straight from bed leaving our employees to bathe and even brush their teeth at the creche. Most parents have not come to the creche till now. Language too is a barrier to keeping the children engaged,” said Rasheeda V.A., Child Development Project Officer, Vazhakkulam, a sleepy village along the eastern suburbs of Ernakulam district.  

“There is a demand for daycare centres as an extension of anganwadis and schools beyond their normal working hours to take care of migrant children till their parents return from work,” said K.K. Shaju, the chairman of the CWC (Child Welfare Committee), Ernakulam. He suggests a school classroom could be used for the purpose. “Children not enrolled in schools face greater threat,” he said.  

The language bridge 

Hurdles faced by migrant children on account of an alien language draws attention to the success of the Ernakulam district administration’s Project Roshni, which has enhanced the academic performance of migrant children through improved language proficiency. The project using code-switching as the main pedagogical tool, which involves a speaker alternating between two or more languages in the context of a single conversation, was first introduced in four schools covering about 110 students in lower and upper primary classes in Ernakulam during 2017-18. Now the project is under way in 40 schools in the district.  

“Instruction in the mother tongue, rooted in indigenous culture and art at the household-level, remains critical at least for children in the pre-primary and primary classes. That validates code-switching, which is now being recommended by the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) as part of a Statewide proposal modelled on Roshni,” said Jayasree Kulakkunnath, the academic coordinator of Roshni and teacher at Binanipuram Government High School in Aluva education district, which was one of the schools where the project was piloted.  

The SCERT has drawn up an action plan for the implementation of the proposed project, which would benefit over 17,000 migrant students across the State. The project would be implemented by the SCERT with the cooperation of various departments, including general education, local self-government, social justice, women and child development, health and the State Planning Board.  

“We have proposed the project for inclusive education by integrating migrant children into our mainstream education based on a tri-lingual approach involving Malayalam, English, and Hindi that is now prevalent in our education system,” said Sasi M.T., research officer, SCERT. The proposal has been recommended at the ministry level and will be invoked when the education budget for the forthcoming financial year is discussed.  

Notwithstanding efforts to encourage enrolment of migrant children in schools, gap still exists. For instance, out of the 232 migrant children in Ernakulam district, which CMID identified were out of schools during 2023-24 academic year, only 67 could be eventually enrolled.  

“The public-funded schools are not interested in the enrolment of migrant students after the sixth working day when critical factors like number of divisions and teacher strength are finalised. However, many schools here in the near future would be dependent on migrant children to keep up the enrolment rate,” said Peter.  

Binanipuram Government High School, near the industrial township in Eloor, where 104 of the 154 students are migrants, is a case in point. Apart from registering 100% success in SSLC exams over the last decade, the migrant students have also shone in extracurricular activities having won prizes at the district and sub-district level in sports, arts, and work experience during this academic year.

“However, the dropout rate remains high among migrant students. They may return to their hometown in the middle of the academic year and return weeks later. Since a student has to be removed from the rolls after being absent for 16 consecutive days, there have been many instances in which we had to trigger the readmission formalities whenever they returned,” said Beena Baby, school headmistress.  

Payal Kumari, 25, who bagged the first rank in MG University’s BA History (Archaeology) in 2020, however, is an example of how migration ensures better access to education to migrant children and facilitates social mobility. Though originally from Sheikhpura in Bihar, Kumari has little memory of her hometown, as she came to Kochi at six.

“Migration probably proved a blessing in disguise. I believe it gave me better opportunities than what I could have had if my family had stayed back in Bihar,” Kumari, who is now preparing for the Civil Service exams, said.  

Meanwhile, the CWC has moved Diya back to SOS Children Village and transferred her to her previous school in Aluva as she desired. Among her old friends, Diya is back to her jovial self.

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