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Odisha: Continued Closure of Seasonal Hostels Forcing Children to Migrate to Worksites With Parents

Though the government has opened all state-run schools and hostels from class six, seasonal hostels are not yet permitted to open. This has made things challenging for migrant parents who are now forced to take their children with them as they migrate to work in brick kiln worksites.

Teachers of Bhubanpur UP school putting posters to sensitise parents about enrolling in seasonal hostels

Nuapada and Bhubaneswar: As life started unlocking and entering into normalcy, after a gap of 18 months, this year, on the occasion of Nuakhai (a festival of Western Odisha to celebrate newly-harvested grain by the farmers), the ritual of migration has begun again. The migrants who had returned to their villages for COVID-induced lockdown and subsequent fear of COVID infection during the second wave have started migrating to different destinations in search of work.

Dambaru Majhi, 46, and his wife Bhanumati Majhi, 42, from Mendhatal village under Komna block in Nuapada district, are among those villagers who have taken advance to migrate to work in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh. But when the couple decided to migrate, the most challenging part for them was where to keep their children. The couple has four daughters, and before COVID, they used to keep them at seasonal hostels, where the children stayed safely and continued their education.

Dambaru Majhi contacted Mendhatal Up-Graded High School cum Seasonal Hostel this year too, but all in vain. Though the government has opened all state-run schools and hostels from class six, seasonal hostels are not yet permitted to open.

"We can't even leave our children in the village. There is no one to look after them. No elderly person at home to take care of them. So, for their safety, we have decided to take them with us," said Dambaru Majhi when contacted over the phone.

A picture of brick kiln work site

A picture of brick kiln work site

Every year lakhs of people from migration-prone districts- Balangir, Kalahandi, Nuapada and Bargarh- in the western part of Odisha migrate to work in Raipur, Durg, Nagpur, Mumbai, Surat, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Tamil Nadu. Among them, a majority migrate to engage themselves in brick kilns in the Southern states of India. Earlier, the family and children migrated to work in brick kilns, adversely impacting children's education, nutrition, and overall development. Seasonal hostels were opened in 2004 to provide children with a better environment for education, food and safety in these migration-prone districts, with financial support from the central government and implemented through OSEPA (Odisha State Education Programme Authority).

In the Nuapada district alone, there are around 60 seasonal hostels where more than 3,000 children of migrant parents enrol to continue their education. As the seasonal hostels are run from November to June (the migration season when parents migrate to work in brick kiln sites), Rs 20,000/annum/child is spent on their education, food and other basic needs.

Hostels Closed

In March 2020, the government closed all educational institutions, including regular and seasonal hostels. The hostels informed the parents that they would have to take their children home.

"During that time, it was very difficult for us to convince the parents to take their children home. As the migration season had not ended and parents were out of villages, mostly in their destination states, they couldn't come to take their children. Children were asked to leave, and most of them stayed with their relatives till the return of their parents," said Aswini Kumar Sahu, Coordinator, AIF Lokdrusti, a non-profit organisation that works to sensitise migrant parents to enrol children in seasonal hostels before leaving for migration.

Hostel Closed

Picture of a closed seasonal hostel

"In the COVID period, when the children were at home, we approached the District Collector of Nuapada and Balangir to provide financial support to the children, including rice of MDM, as parents were completely sitting at home without work and wages," he added.

During COVID, the children in remote villages, especially with migrant parents, faced many difficulties. They couldn't continue their studies as their parents could neither buy smartphones nor spend on internet data. Many children who were doing well in their studies were forced to leave their education and start helping their parents on farms or rearing goats.

Premananda Sabar, a 38-year-old who had enrolled his only daughter to pursue studies, is now forced to take her with him to brick kiln sites.

"My daughter was performing well in studies, and she had a dream to do higher studies. We thought if the seasonal hostel had opened, we would keep her there to continue her studies. But the continuous closer of hostels has shattered all her dreams," said Sabar.

Demands From Parents

An assessment report on the effect of COVID-19 on the education of migrant children by Aide et Action, a non-profit organisation working on the education of migrant children in different states, including Odisha, reveals that around 79% of migrant parents had to bring their school-going children with them as schools and hostels were closed due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Many parents contacted by this writer expressed that if seasonal hostels had been opened, they would leave their children and migrate for work.

Ramachandra Bariha, 38, and Labang Bariha, 33, of Dedenga village under Komna block, wanted to leave their two school-going children in seasonal hostels. Still, they had no option other than to take them to the worksite.

"In brick kiln worksites, they will have to work with us. If not, they will help with other household works. But the plight is that we will return in June next year, and another academic year will be lost. If seasonal hostels had opened, they could have continued their education," said Ramachandra Bariha.

Teachers of Bhubanpur UP School teaching children at brick kiln worksites

Teachers of Bhubanpur UP School teaching children at brick kiln worksites

As the Primary School (Classes from 1-5) has not yet opened in the state, parents have migrated to worksites with their children. In many places, teachers from government schools are teaching children inside brick kiln worksites. In Balianta, the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, teachers of Bhubanpur Upper Primary School regularly visit nearby brick kiln worksites to teach these children. But parents said that in the COVID situation when travelling from one place to another is still unsafe, it would have been better if children were enrolled in seasonal hostels.

Demands From SMCs

The School Management Committees (SMCs) of different schools-cum-seasonal hostels in the Nuapada district have written letters to the concerned department to reopen seasonal hostels to enrol students. But, no step has been taken to date.

"When the government has allowed reopening of all hostels (private, government and SC/ST) and schools from class six, it should allow seasonal hostels to enrol children of migrant parents. We have requested district-level authority and sent letters to the concerned department, but no step has been taken yet. If things go like this, it will be difficult to bring them back to school-fold," said a member of one SMC in Nuapada, on the condition of anonymity.

Umi Daniel, Director, Aide et Action, said, "We are in the middle of seasonal migration. By now, approximately 50% of the total migrant labourers have left, and the rest will move by January. To retain the children of migrant parents, seasonal hostels should reopen by December."

He also added, "The education department should come up with a database of such children who are excluded from education due to various factors including pandemics and find innovative solutions to provide education."

Sandhyabati Pradhan, the chairperson of OSCPCR (Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights), agrees that there is a need to open up seasonal hostels to retain children of migrant parents.

She also said, "Soon the Commission will give recommendations to the State Government for opening up of more seasonal hostels and find solutions to bridge the learning loss of marginalised children."

Last year, when the pandemic occurred, Dambaru Majhi's elder daughter Mamita Majhi was in class 8. Due to the closure of seasonal hostels, she would have to accompany her parents to brick kiln worksites this year.

"I wanted to give the matric examination and further continue my studies, but pandemic, lockdown and now the closure of seasonal hostels have shattered all my dreams," said Mamita Majhi, who is now in Class nine.

If things continue like this, there is no doubt that these children will fall prey to child labour and early marriage.

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