“What do you want to be when you grow up,” I asked 10-year-old Shivam, but instantly regretted the question. “I don’t know,” he said hesitantly, “I want to go back to school. I miss my friends.” A question that elicits a variety of responses in most school-going children was a non-starter for Shivam, who is the fourth child of Sabbu Singh and Kaali Bai, who migrate from their village in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh every year to work in the quarries of Bundi in Rajasthan. This year Shivam accompanied his parents, which meant he has dropped out of school for the time being.

India has over 41.4 million seasonal migrant workers. The festival of Holi that marks the advent of spring also initiates the journey of many seasonal migrants, like Shivam’s family. “We usually work for five-six months, until monsoons, when the drilling work in the mines stop,” Sabbu, his father said. “Then we return home in time for the sowing season of the crops.” Sabbu calls himself a part-farmer, part-labourer – unable to sustain entirely on one for his livelihood.

Analysis of census data by India Migration Now, a migration research and advocacy organisation, puts the number of child migrants at 63 million in 2011, which includes children who migrate alone as well as with parents or other family. There is no publicly available data for seasonal child migrants.

Migrant children have lower nutritional outcomes, are less likely to complete schooling and to benefit from government policies and programmes, our reporting found.

Distress migration

Human beings have migrated across land and water since the dawn of civilisation, seeking better opportunities. Distress migration, however, is forced, “mostly for survival rather than profit”. Distress migrants, mostly landless labourers and marginal farmers, from areas that are vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, often face an uncertain future in their chosen destination.

This migration is usually short-term and is also called circular migration between source and destination, with families usually returning home in time for the sowing season.

Sabbu Singh and his son, Shivam. Shivam had to drop out of school to accompany his parents as they migrate for work. Credit: Ramdev Bhatt

Sabbu Singh, for instance, is a marginal farmer who has one bigha of land (approximately 0.27 acre) on which he grows maize. “But the yield is just enough for our own consumption and not to earn a livelihood,” Sabbu told IndiaSpend. He said he has been migrating every year for the past 20 years to Rajasthan to earn an additional income.

Like him, Thakur Singh of Madhya Pradesh’s Alirajpur district has also been migrating every year to Bundi to work in the mines. “My parents would come here every year to work – I was even born here,” Thakur said, “This will be my 40th year of coming here.” Thakur has three bigha of land back home where he grows maize.

Thakur Singh of Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh migrates seasonally to Rajasthan for work every year. This year will mark his 40th year of seasonal migration. Children of seasonal migrants have lower nutritional outcomes and often drop out of school.

Most seasonal migrants, said Raghav Mehrotra of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, belong to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, and “often fall off the radar of policy makers and are invisible even to researchers”. “There is no imagination of multi locality in policies,” he said, meaning policies aimed at people who live in more than one place over the period of a year.

This invisibility is even more stark when it comes to families, particularly children of migrant workers, said researcher Divya Ravindranath, also of Indian Institute for Human Settlements. “Migration is always seen as an economic activity. However, and particularly in seasonal migration, it is the entire family which moves as a unit from one place to another,” Ravindranath told IndiaSpend.

Nutrition challenge

“Migrant children don’t have access to Anganwadi centres – neither in the place of their parents’ work, nor in their own village,” said Ravindranath, whose PhD was on the nutritional status of children among migrant construction workers in Ahmedabad. Anganwadi centres are part of the government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme, under which a child up to the age of six, and their mothers, are provided nutritious food, primary healthcare, immunisation, preschool education and referral services.

“As we know, the first 1,000 days after a child is born is crucial in determining their health for life but a woman labourer who works till the ninth month of her pregnancy and goes back to work after two-three weeks of delivering her child is unable to look after her child well,” Ravindranath said. Her research had found that 50.4% of migrant children were underweight, 40.5% were stunted (short for their age), and 22.1% were wasted (low weight for height). For context, across India, 32.1% of children under five years were underweight, 35.5% were stunted and 19.3% were wasted, as per the 2019-’21 National Family Health Survey.

“The argument that Integrated Child Development Scheme is universal still does not provide access to health and other services to these children because they are on the move.”

Access to education

According to the Unesco Global Education Monitoring Report 2019, in India, up to 40% of children of seasonal migrant households are likely to end up in work rather than in schools. Among young people who have grown up in a rural household with a seasonal migrant, 28% identified as illiterate or had an incomplete primary education.

“There is an overlap of academic sessions in schools (June-April) and the seasonal migration cycle (November-June) on account of which migrant children who have been enrolled in school end up attending only between June and November,” Unesco said in another report in 2013. This frequent discontinuation often results in their dropping out of school altogether.

“And in their destination, there are other learning challenges, like language barrier and differences in academic curricula,” said Mahesh Gajera of the Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that works on the issue of labour and migration. “There is no appropriate solution for education for migrant children.”

The National Education Policy 2020, while recognising that “large disparities” remain for socio-economically disadvantaged groups such as migrant communities, said that “alternative and innovative education centres will be put in place in cooperation with civil society to ensure that children of migrant labourers and other children who are dropping out of school…are brought back into mainstream education”.

On the ground however, Sanjay Kumar, secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy in the Ministry of Education, said that they do not have any data on the number of children of seasonal migrants – the first step to initiate any focused intervention for the group. “The labour department is constituting a database of children of particular age groups who are on the move. This will then be shared with us and we will refer to it for any intervention,” Kumar told IndiaSpend.

Agreeing that language is a challenge when it comes to accessing education for migrant children in a different state, Kumar said, “Initiatives such as Bhashini will help translate information from one language to the other, which is in an advanced stage of development. But how would this help the seasonal migrant children will be determined only once we have the data.” Bhashini is a Whatsapp-based chat-bot developed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which aims to build a national public digital platform for languages so that people have access to information in their language.

We also reached out to the Ministry of Women And Child Development, and the Ministry of Labour, for information on programmes for migrant children and will update the story when they respond.

Domino effect

Migrants are still reeling from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, even three years after the lockdown, when migrants from across the country rushed home in dire conditions.

Sabbu Singh said that he is still repaying a loan of Rs 30,000 that he took from a moneylender in his village when he was out of work. “I have five children and a lot of expenditures. My two daughters have to be married, my wife has recently been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder,” he said. The economic shock of Covid-19, along with the medical needs of the family, have pushed his children into labour. His 19-year-old son works with him in the quarry in Bundi, and this year, he sent his 15-year-old daughter to Gujarat to work as an agricultural labourer in the cotton fields. “I have sent her with my elder brother…She is earning Rs 300 a day, which can be of help to her in her own marriage.”

In a 2013 report on India, the International Labour Organization said that the outcome of migration from villages is “highly exploitative for children”, with insecurity, abuse, lack of basic amenities, irrespective of who they moved out with. “Our research shows that even when accompanied by parents, or known persons, children were put to work on their own for most of the time in conditions where they were exploited.”

Child migrants are broadly categorised as accompanied, unaccompanied and children left behind, as per a commentary published by the Social Research Policy Foundation, a charitable trust. Unaccompanied children – those who migrate on their own – are at the highest risk of child labour, wrote author Raashid Shah, in the piece.

Policies on paper

On evaluating policies related to short-term migration, Priyansha Singh, operations and advocacy lead at India Migration Now finds a lack of focus on children.

“From an overall perspective of migrant workers, there are two main gaps (at the policy level): one is acknowledging the unique vulnerabilities of migrants, and second is understanding that there needs to be better integration of spaces with respect to the migrant population,” Singh told IndiaSpend. What this means is that migrant children do not just need access to spaces, such as schools, but there should be policies and programmes in place to remove other barriers in the learning process, like the language of instruction.

In 2019, the Ministry of Labour and Employment introduced four labour codes to subsume 29 central laws. This included the Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Service) Act 1979, created to safeguard the interests of migrant workers, which was subsumed in the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020.

But, Singh said, “nothing much has changed even after the migrant workmen Act was subsumed.” Ravindranath added that the Act has “not benefited the workers as much as they should have”. Although the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 was meant to protect the interests of migrant workers, such as the provision of decent working conditions, grievances redressal mechanisms, toll free helplines and social security, much of it has remained on paper, Singh explained. “Workers are hardly aware of the Act in order to demand for their rights and they continue living the way they have for years,” added Ravindranath.

At the same time, there are initiatives across different states, with civil society, to address some of the challenges faced by migrant children.

In Gujarat, for instance, the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action has 70 seasonal hostels for children of migrant workers, 11 to 14 years old, since 2003, across five districts of the state. Children can stay back in their villages in these hostels and continue their education when their parents migrate. They also started 100 support schools at work sites, “one of which had teachers teaching in six languages to cater to migrant children from West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat”, said Ashok Shrimali, programme executive at Centre for Social Knowledge and Action.

“We realised the scale of the problem while doing relief work after the 2001 earthquake…If you went to a village, for instance, you’d see that 60%-70% of children who were enrolled in school had almost nil attendance,” as they were the children of migrants.

“The seasonal hostel model was later adopted by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India’s school education programme, at the state and central level as an effective model to prevent children of migrant workers from missing out on education,” he said.

Similarly, Aide et Action, a Geneva-based non-governmental organisation, said it has been operating worksite schools seasonally since 2017 for migrant children in Telangana. Most of the parents work as brick kiln workers and hail from Odisha. The organisation uses textbooks and mobilises volunteers from Odisha, given the language barrier. These schools operate between November and June, based on the migration cycle – and have since reached 5,538 children, according to a report Aide et Action shared with IndiaSpend. In 2022, worksite schools were opened for 55 Marathi-speaking children whose parents migrate seasonally to Telangana for work.

Aide et Action is also working with the Telangana state Women and Child Development Department, the Health and Family Welfare Department, the police and the Samagra Shiskha Abhiyan to ensure that Integrated Child Development Services services reach migrant children in Hyderabad.

India Migration Now’s Interstate Migrant Policy Index, which assessed 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi in 2019, found that Kerala, Goa, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh were the most successful in integrating migrants. Kerala was ranked first on three of eight indicators: child rights, education and health and sanitation.

Kerala’s Project Roshni is helping bridge the language gap in accessing education for migrant children by using multiple languages as a medium of instruction in select government and government-aided schools. Such was the impact of this programme that, when during the Covid-19 lockdown from March 2020, migrants went back en masse to their homes, 90% of the families covered by the programme in Ernakulam had stayed back, we reported in July 2020.

The state also has other migrant welfare schemes, such as Apna Ghar that gives rental accommodation to inter-state migrant workers, and Aawaz, a health insurance scheme.

Distress migration, said Gajera, will continue to rise because the “reasons they migrate for – poor agriculture and infrastructure in their homes, social pressure, and industrial growth closer to cities and towns – continue to persist”.

For a more unified approach to addressing the multiple challenges facing migrant workers and their families, including children, Suresh Gutta, regional manager of Aide et Action, said that there should be a Migrant Resource Centre in every block of the country. “This resource centre could address all their questions and problems,” he said.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.