An estimated 63 million Indian children are migrants, according to the 2011 Census. That is about the population size of Gujarat, the United Kingdom or France. At least 15 million children migrate seasonally, as per the 2001 Census.

There is no up-to-date information on migrant children despite the crisis that followed the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, when lakhs of workers and their families headed back on foot to their homes from big cities. The images of thousands of children walking back to their villages and towns from the metropolises drew media attention only because they had become visible by force of circumstance.

In 2021, the Supreme Court directed state governments to provide information on migrant children, but since then there has been little progress and the matter is still pending.

A consultation in August last year by the National Coalition on the Education Emergency, of which this author is a part, noted that the disruption of education or difficulty in access has been the norm for migrant children even before the pandemic.

Neither the Centre nor the state governments have well articulated policies or programmes to address the education of migrant children. The inequality of India’s education system is extreme and nothing reflects that better than the treatment of different kinds of “inter-state migrant” children.

Central schools for some

For the children of central government officials or armed forces, the publicly-funded central and army schools across the country provide automatic entry, a common curriculum and language of instruction (English) and well-trained teachers. For the children of families with well-paying private sector jobs, there are elite, private institutions.

For them, the promise of the Constitution for free movement across the country as one of the inalienable rights of citizenship is a reality: they are not seen as inter-state migrants, but as citizens of India.

This is not the case for the children of tens of millions of workers who migrate from their home states to work at construction sites, on infrastructure projects, at factories, farms, hotels and restaurants and as street vendors and household workers.

As these children move from state to state, they face differences in state curricula and, more critically, the language of instruction. There are no state government mandated programmes to help them transition from their own language to a new language of instruction.

They are seen as “migrants”, entrants into another political jurisdiction, like a foreign country, not as rights-bearing citizens of India.

Is this just a policy oversight? Not if the public spending on these two different categories of migrant children is considered.

Follow the money

In 2018-’19, the central government collectively spent Rs 18,600 crore on Kendriya Vidyalayas and the education-related expenditure of the Union Ministry of Defence. This was the most recent year for which comparable data for both types of schools was available.

The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan had spent about Rs 5,006 crore in 2018-’19. The Union Ministry of Defence spent about Rs 13,600 crore in the same year, which “mainly goes towards elementary and secondary education”, according to the Analysis of Budgeted Expenditures on Education 2016-’17 to 2018-’19, released by the Ministry of Education in 2021.

The collective amount of Rs 18,600 crores makes up almost 40% of the total expenditure on elementary and secondary education by the education department of the Central government, including all Centrally-sponsored schemes in the same year, according to the author’s calculation.

The Kendriya Vidyalayas have about 1.4 million students. The number of elementary and secondary education students under the defence ministry’s army schools is not known, but is unlikely to exceed the Kendriya Vidyalayas. Thus, the Centre makes extensive expenses on the education of less than two million students while there is no clear budget allocation for the estimated 65 million migrant children of the poor.

To the extent that these children are included in head counts of enrolment and therefore teacher allocations in the “destination” states, like Kerala, their education is covered by the low public education budget. But it is not clear if this is happening in all states. Migrant children may not register on time, or they may move with their parents searching for jobs during the academic year, and may not be counted at all.

The National Education Policy contains no reference to this large group of vulnerable and disadvantaged children either, except parenthetically – in a literal sense – where they are mentioned along with a list of disadvantaged groups in brackets.

Representative image. Credit: AFP.

Earlier policies did not even have this parenthetical mention. In contrast, the Kendriya Vidyalaya scheme was approved as far back as 1962 on the recommendations of the Second Central Pay Commission to “provide uninterrupted education” to the children of transferable central government employees.

Presumably, this was because these employees were “forced” to transfer residence. But the workers who migrate thousands of kilometres in search of work are not entitled to uninterrupted education for their children, apparently because they are exercising their “choice” of employment location.

The national consultation in August revealed that India does not have even basic data systems, such as a national registry on migrants, that other countries have in place. The government’s Unified District Information System on Education that gathers data from schools, does not report and may not even capture information on migrant children.

Migrant children are not a homogeneous group either. There are those who migrate with families, and some of them work or look after younger siblings. Others are unaccompanied. Many families are engaged in seasonal work, travelling back and forth between states. Others move from state to state.

Non-governmental organisations in the sector operate small-scale programmes, while some state governments, in “sending” states, have set up seasonal residential hostels for the children of workers who migrate, as is the case in Odisha. But in the absence of a systematic policy and adequate funding, there are no large-scale programmes to address this issue.

Of course, there is a cost to providing education for children of these groups, but that is also the cost of development. The industries that benefit from migrant labour from other states do not advocate for or invest in the education of their workers’ children. There are also complex policy issues such as multilingualism.

Language woes

Language in education policy has been framed within the context of the linguistic organisation of states. Students in government schools are expected to be taught primarily in their mother tongue or the “dominant” state language.

But what happens when children in the same classroom come from multiple language backgrounds as a result of migration due to socio-economic changes?

Much recent controversy in India has been about the teaching of English and other Indian languages. However, the educational implications resulting from the mixing of populations, which is taking place on a big scale in India and creating even greater linguistic diversity in society and schools, is not being debated.

Outside a school in New Delhi. Credit: PTI.

The issues relating to the education of children of internal migrants are not unique to India. In China, the household registration system of managing migration to urban areas – referred to as “Hukou” – meant that benefits and public services were accessible only in the home village even if a person worked in an urban area. This, together with a highly decentralised education finance system, unequally affected 13 million or so migrant children estimated to be in urban areas in 2013.

They were forced to attend private migrant schools and denied access to public schools unless they paid additional fees. From 2003, changes in policy and financing in China made it mandatory and possible for local governments to incorporate migrant children into public schools.

The United States and countries in the European Union have also developed policies and programmes to facilitate better access to education for their populations of immigrant children. The American state of New Jersey, for instance, has a programme that helps school districts and charter schools – publicly funded independent schools – to provide special education programs for migrant children, particularly of agricultural workers.

In India, too, it is time for an enlightened policy and a nationwide programme to provide quality education to all migrant children, irrespective of their background.

Sajitha Bashir is co-founder of the National Coalition on the Education Emergency and former Education Practice Manager in the World Bank.