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Children live alone in Odisha villages, migrant worker parents yet to return

One of a migrant parent's child comforted by an village woman as she is crying at her parents house at Tudibahal village in Balangir district of Odisha as she is living there alone after returning back from the seasonal hostel as it closed due to lockdown. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

One of a migrant parent's child comforted by an village woman as she is crying at her parents house at Tudibahal village in Balangir district of Odisha as she is living there alone after returning back from the seasonal hostel as it closed due to lockdown. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Minor school kids were rendered vulnerable by the closure of State-run seasonal hostels when lockdown began

Kumarika Mahananda (name changed) begins her day in this remote village of Odisha’s Balangir district by sweeping of the floor of her thatched house and collecting water. Unlike her more privileged peers in cities, who may watch cartoons on TV or take classes online, the 11-year-old strains hot gruel from boiled rice. She has little choice. Left alone in her family’s 200 sq. ft. dwelling, she has been taking care of all chores by herself for the past two months.

Immediately after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, the seasonal hostel run by Odisha’s Department of School & Mass Education, where Ms. Kumarika stayed with 40 other children, abruptly shut down.

Also read: A rude welcome for Odisha’s migrants as villages lack basic facilities

Nowhere to go

It was a double whammy for children like her, with their parents away making a living at brick kilns in other States. While a handful children could move in with grandparents or other relatives, Ms. Kumarika and others like her had no such option. Her parents, and three of her siblings, are still stranded at a brick kiln in the outskirts of Hyderabad, unable to board a Shramik Special train.

“My maternal uncle, with whom I could have stayed, has migrated to work in outside State. So my neighbours were asked to care for me,” she said. In the beginning, neighbours did help, but they soon lost interest in the task, leaving the child to her cope alone. She has used advance ration and cash provided by the government to stay alive.

When her story made it to local media, a steady stream of visitors arrived to see her, including local Patnagarh MLA. It did not, however, bring any change in situation, and she remains alone, without any adult to ensure food and security for her.

“We tried to bring the child [Ms. Kumarika] back from her village, but she was reluctant. Then what could we have done?” asked Balangir District Child Protection Officer Laxmi Singh. On the other children living alone, Ms. Singh said information was being collected.

2,400 children

Elsewhere in Thudibahal, 14-year-old Salini Mahananda (name changed) faces the identical situation. After the panchayat’s seasonal hostel at the Project Upper Primary School was shut down, Ms. Shalini joined her college-going sister at home. Their mother is yet to return from a brick kiln in Hyderabad, rendering both girls vulnerable.

There are at least 2,400 children like Ms. Kumarika and Ms. Shalini in Balangir, deprived of parental care while the migrant worker parents are away.

Seasonal hostels were introduced for schools in the western Odisha districts of Balangir, Nuapada, Bargarh, Kalahandi and Subarnapur some years ago. Without such facilities, labourers would take their school-going children along, since no one was left in the villages to take care of them. Children lost valuable days in the academic year as well as the protein food provided at schools. Instead, they could stay at the hostels till their parents returned.

Rice and salt

About 100 km away from Thudibahal, in Sargada village of Loisingha block, a brother-sister duo, ages 13 and 11, respectively, live alone in a thatched single room house. Their parents have left with their younger siblings to work at a granite factory in Gujarat. Rinky, the girl, does most of the house work now. They have received 24 kg of free rice per month for the last two months, some of which they sell to buy edible oil and salt.

Apart from providing rice and salt, the district administration is yet to consider how minor children living alone can be protected.

“The Sarva Sikhshya Abhijan (SSA) should have assessed how many children were left alone after the closure of hostels. The children should have been produced before the District Child Welfare Committee. They should have been sheltered in safer places,” said Gourishyam Panda, convenor, Western Odisha Migration Network, a forum that works on migrant workers’ issues.

“There is also the risk of children slipping into moderate to severe depression if they stay alone for longer periods. Long crying spells, extreme mood swings and causing self-harm are some attributes. The absence of a healthy environment could lead to unhealthy addictions,” said Soumya Mohapatra, psychological counsellor at Manam Foundation, an NGO.

Mr. Panda said that by abdicating its responsibilities, the government had pushed children into a life of uncertainty and exposed them to possible abuse and exploitation.

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Printable version | Jul 16, 2020 7:23:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/children-live-alone-in-odisha-villages-migrant-worker-parents-yet-to-return/article31731037.ece

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