Representational Image. Image Courtesy: HuffPost India
Earlier this year, in the Nilothi area of northwest Delhi, researchers with the Kislay Social Research Collective interviewed the children of ragpickers and other migrant workers. The researchers, themselves belonging to families of daily wage earners, were reduced to tears by what they found.
They found children so terrified of being picked up by the police that they refused to give their names or speak at all. They had no place to eat or to bathe. The ragpickers' children ate amid the same garbage that they collected and sorted. Their parents were often absent, with the older children taking care of the younger ones. For these inhuman living conditions, they were paying absurdly high rents, to the tune of Rs. 1,500 to 2,000 per month for dilapidated rooms with no infrastructure. In a nearby settlement, one of the interviewees was a girl of about 14, the daughter of workers brought to work on a construction site. But when the researchers went back a few days later, they found the girl missing. After inquiries they were told, in quiet secretive tones, that the girl had been raped soon after they met her. Rather than informing the police, the contractor had sent the entire family back to their home village in order to avoid "trouble."
These conditions are neither exceptional nor rare. Over the summer of 2019, in a comparative study across Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Dehradun in Uttarakhand, we held discussions and interviews with 329 children of daily wage and casual migrant workers (111, 118 and 100 participants in each location, respectively). What emerged was far worse than we expected – these children face conditions that are so awful that they constitute an atrocity in themselves.
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For instance, we found that finding even something as basic as a space to play was a great difficulty for these children. With the exception of Dehradun, where we interviewed children belonging to a more 'settled' community of migrants, the vast majority of those whom we interviewed said they played on public roads or even "kabaad ke beech mein" (among the garbage). Around 38% of girls in Delhi said they did not play outside at all, and in most of our discussions in Delhi, it was generally felt that girls should not go outside since it was unsafe. This is particularly ironic and disturbing given that Delhi, unlike the other sites we surveyed, has an extensive system of public parks – but 40% of our respondents said they had been kept out of public parks and playgrounds, mostly by residents.
As for playing with other children, over 70% of our respondents said they did not go to other children's houses to play – and this rose to 85% and 87% of our respondents in Delhi and Tamil Nadu. This isolation was compounded by humiliation and violence, especially among those we interviewed in Delhi. Three quarters of our respondents in Delhi said they had been teased and humiliated by other children and half reported being beaten (reactions in our other two survey sites were different, but we return to that below).
Social isolation was in turn accompanied by official and educational discrimination. In both Tamil Nadu and Delhi—despite the fact that the Tamil Nadu government has specifically set up Hindi medium schools for these children—between one half and three quarters of those who responded to our survey reported that they had trouble understanding what was said in class and that they had trouble participating for linguistic reasons. In Delhi, further, 63.5% of those who responded said they did not think their teachers paid attention to whether they were in school or not, and 67.5% said they did not think their teachers cared whether they were learning or not. A total of 61.5% said their teachers were disrespectful towards them.
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This lack of access to basic facilities extended, of course, to more than education. Health care was a major problem in all three sites, with more than half of our respondents even in the more 'settled' population of Dehradun reporting that they had to travel far to find a good doctor – while all those in Tamil Nadu said they had to, and 86% of those in the 'big' city of Delhi said the same. More than 80% in all three sites said that their parents had to borrow money to pay for medical expenses.
Moreover, as in the horror of what we found in northwest Delhi, these statistics do not capture the true inhumanity of the conditions under which many of these children live. Even in Dehradun, where more than half of our respondents had actually been born in the city itself, more than a quarter said they felt the children of migrants were unsafe in the city and similar proportions said they felt that children of migrant workers faced more violence. In Tamil Nadu, while children typically didn't report humiliation or violence from locals (other than teachers), this was largely because they were totally isolated from the local population, living in tightly guarded and policed tent settlements with their parents often working 18 or 20 hour working days. Even the schools specifically set up for them by the Tamil Nadu government were typically neglected. And in Delhi, the national capital, with far more infrastructure and state expenditure than the other sites, we found violence, discrimination, humiliation and brutality were rife.
It is a given that for a child to grow and develop in a healthy manner, they require physical support in the form of healthcare and safe spaces, as well as social and environmental support to ensure they can grow without facing discrimination and violence. What we found, as we note in our study, was that every single one of these conditions is violated for the children of daily wage migrant workers – and there are literally crores of such children in the country.
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The only government initiatives specifically targeted at these children that we are aware of concern educational initiatives. But we found, and hold, that while this is obviously a vital step, these conditions are not likely to be addressed merely by increasing investment in education. Rather, the marginalisation and discrimination faced by these children is a direct consequence of the structural disempowerment of their parents, some of which was explored in our previous studies. A system that atomises, disorganises and isolates migrant workers and subjects them to an existence of intense, continuous insecurity is, unsurprisingly, having a terrible impact on their children as well.
Hence, only those measures that provide security and the possibility of collective organising by migrant workers are likely to lead to lasting change for the better for their children as well. We had explored some of the possibilities for such steps in our previous studies on women workers and on male workers. But these steps require urgent action, both at the level of those working with these communities and at the level of the state machinery. Subjecting millions of children to growing up under such conditions will only perpetuate conditions of poverty, disempowerment and marginalisation, setting the stage for further atrocities in future.
The author is a member of the KISLAY Social Research Collective which studies unorganised, understudied and new forms of production, labour and social action. The Collective is grateful to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung for supporting the research that led to this study. The views expressed are personal.