The nowhere children

Giving the young ones a decent chance in life

Giving the young ones a decent chance in life  

Migrant construction workers often cannot look after the emotional needs of their children. Ashraya is an organisation trying to address this imbalance through its mobile cr�ches, reports LAKSHMI SALGAME.

PICTURE THIS: a typical construction site with workers, laden with stone and cement, climbing up and down the precarious scaffolding. Cranes, mortar mixers, yelling, cursing, noise. Unmindful of the commotion, seven-year-old Sashikantha stands wide-eyed, surveying the pandemonium. His mother, who works at the site, is away. He is hungry, and he has just walked up from their little shack about 50 metres away in search of her, and some food.

There are many like little Sashikantha at construction sites in many cities across the world, and certainly in one of Asia's fastest growing cities, Bangalore. Their childhood is everything it should not be. Nobody has the time or inclination to see to their needs. They are covered in grime and their environs are polluted. The parents, most probably migrants who have to grub out a living in the hardest of manner, have no time for them when work is on. Ashraya, a women and child welfare organisation, working in Bangalore since 1982, is making a rather innovative effort to improve conditions for such unfortunate youngsters: it runs mobile cr�ches for children of construction workers, and has built up a partnership with the City's leading builders to provide for better care.

While this measure appears new, the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act actually makes it binding on builders to provide for cr�ches as children invariably accompany parents on construction sites as they have nowhere else to go during the day. These children cannot have the concept of a permanent home as parents are always on the lookout for jobs. They also do not have easy access to education.

Their parents acknowledge the value of education, but find it impossible to provide for it as they cannot find the time or the money given the nature of their work. Schools are also often located far away. How can there be any guarantee on the well being of these children in such circumstances?

Added to this bleak scenario is the problem of alcoholism endemic in labour families, draining the already pitiful resources. Left with very little to maintain the family, the health of children is threatened. There have been many instances where such children have died of diseases such as chicken pox, as the parents did not know where they could access medicare. Such ignorance is also prime territory for child labour.

"By the age of eight or nine, children are induced into labour," explains Nomita Chandy, Secretary, Ashraya, who spearheaded the initiative of establishing mobile cr�ches at construction sites in 1983. Ashraya has successfully run cr�ches on multiple sites for over 30 construction companies with financial help from builders. Its initiative is timely as Bangalore's industrial growth is at an all time high. Ashraya brings the cr�che right into the construction site, provides a cr�che helper, and a trained teacher.

It conducts monthly health check-ups and immunisation programmes to monitor the health of the children and provides a nutritious mid-day meal. While the younger children are kept occupied with stories and taught the basics of social interaction, the older ones are taught the Kannada alphabet. Art and crafts also make learning fun for the tiny tots.

"But more than teaching them reading and writing, we try and inculcate basics of personal health and hygiene. We are very particular about cleanliness. Sometimes, we even send children back home if they come without a bath, if their nails are not cut, etc.. So, through the child, we are also targeting the parents," says Nirmala Motha, who coordinates the construction site cr�ches programme at Ashraya. She further states: "Our cr�che staff also go on regular home visits to speak to the parents on healthy parenting and family planning. This is to generate more interest in parents regarding the well-being of the child." Most cr�ches operate through the week as Nomita Chandy explains. "It helps the builder as there is increased productivity from the labour. Mothers are no longer as worried about their children once they know they are at the cr�che in safe hands."

Sankamma, whose child attended one such on-site cr�che, endorses this. "Earlier I used to be so worried about my child. He has improved after going to the cr�che. This has given me hope that he won't become like me when he grows up. I am happy he is at least literate."

Her boy has now enrolled at the Neelbagh Residential School, an institution for children from migrant labour families set up by Ashraya. The school, located at Madanapalle, is part of Ashraya's objective to ensure a healthy childhood for vulnerable children. The youngsters at the school are taught in Kannada medium.

Away from the debris of the construction site, young Marappa, a resident of Neelbagh School, speaks of his dream. "I want to be an engineer like the one who stands on that site near home." Ashraya can be contacted at 5251929.

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