Lachhaman Dundi and his parents never thought Dundi would ever enroll in college. Hailing from Kotamal village of Khariar block in Odisha’s Nuapada district, he used to accompany his parents as a child labourer to brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh.

While his parents did the arduous work, he flipped bricks so they would dry under the sun. “I used to flip 600-700 bricks daily in the scorching heat and sleep under the sky after a day’s hard work,” Dundi said. “We hardly got a full plate of meal.” Dundi dropped out of school since his parents migrated to other states regularly. He got back to his studies when his parents learnt about seasonal hostels.

Every year, nearly 3,00,000 people from Odisha migrate to neighbouring states to work in brick kilns. Children accompanying their parents work same as them, and suffer verbal and physical abuse, according to civil society organisations working with migrant labours. Many suffer from health problems as well.

Now, though, seasonal hostels in migration prone-districts of Odisha are helping build the lives of migrant children such as Dundi.

Children at work

Until a few years ago, migrant parents took their children along because there was no one to take care of them in the village or because of the pathuria system. Under the pathuria system, labour agents would advance money for so-called units, consisting of a couple and one or two children. The children would flip semi-dried bricks or make balls of mud to be moulded at the kilns.

In brick kilns, as one labourer has to prepare 1,000 bricks per day, he arranges bricks in rows with very little gaps in between. Children can walk between rows easily and flip bricks. Some of the children are dropouts and some have never been to school.

Realising the vulnerability of migrant children, Santosh Kumar Sarangi, then district collector, helped a few activists open Community Managed Residential Care Centers in migration-prone villages of Balangir in 2001-’02. The centres were aimed at enabling migrating parents to leave their children at home, thereby preventing child migration and child labour, and keeping the children in school. The experiment was a success and provided the model for seasonal hostels, which now function across the four migration-prone districts of Balangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi and Bargarh.

“Initially, it was difficult to convince parents to leave their children in hostels,” Bhubaneswar Rout, programme officer of Lokadrusti, a non-profit which started the first hostels in Nuapada in the early 2000s, said. “But after meeting parents regularly, we admitted 193 children in seven centers in Khariar to give them elementary education.”

A few years later though, owing to a fund crunch, Lokadrusti found it hard to run the hostels. By then the Right to Education Act had been implemented and the state government asked the Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority to take over the seasonal hostels. Lokadrusti provides the authority technical support in running the hostels.

“Before opening seasonal hostels, we conduct awareness campaigns in migration-prone villages,” said Hrudananda Behera, additional block education officer of Balangir. Apart from the existing hostels, new schools keep applying to open seasonal hostels, citing the number of migrant children in their respective villages. The district collector selects the schools that can open new seasonal hostels.

Lokadrusti has collected detailed records of labourers who migrate regularly from each village. It sensitises them about the seasonal hostels so they can enroll their children before migrating.

Once the migrant parents return, the residential schools provide “transfer certificates” to their children. They can then go back to schools in their respective villages.

Children have their midday meal at a seasonal hostel. Photo credit: Rakhi Ghosh

Lack of resources

Given the paucity of space in government schools, classrooms often double up as hostel rooms. Children sit on cots and study. “The expenditure per child for six months is Rs 10,000, but there is no fund allocation for health emergencies,” said Aswini Sahu, seasonal hostel coordinator at Lokadrusti, adding that teachers and NGO staff often spend out of their pockets if a child takes ill and needs to be treated in a private hospital.

The hostels generally take only middle school children. “Some schools retain bright students, though, helping them complete their matriculation,” said Khem Das, headmaster, Government Upgrade High School, Mendhala.

Bhupendra Singh Punia, director of the Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority, said they plan to keep the children in seasonal hostels until matriculation.

“The objective was to educate these migrant children,” Biswanath Tarai, additional director of the Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority, said. “Till now nearly 9,000 children have been accommodated in seasonal hostels.”

Though vulnerable, parents take girls along as they help with household chores and also work. Harihara Baikar, headmaster, Government Project Upper Primary School of Talna, said, “Since we opened a hostel in 2005, the enrolment of girls is lower than boys.”

Upendra Harijan is proud that his daughter Rukmini can read and write. Photo credit: Rakhi Ghosh

Changing lives

Notwithstanding these challenges, the seasonal hostels are positively affecting numerous families. A visit to any seasonal hostel will give one an idea of the facilities of food, shelter, study and recreation the children get. Electricity, water, boundary wall, toilets and minimum three rooms to accommodate children are what authorities look for when selecting a school.

“We ensure these facilities so that after school they can watch TV, play indoor games like carrom and ludo, plant trees in the garden, play, dance, eat and pray in the long verandahs,” said Behera. “The objective is to provide them space to nurture their childhood.”

The children can talk to their parents over the phone every Sunday and visit their guardians for festivals.

Sudarshan Panda, headmaster of Dudkibahal Project Upper Primary School, said, they record the children’s “health status, including weight, so that we can pay special attention and give nutritious food if they are malnourished”.

They are fed locally available vegetables, fruits and snacks, and non-vegetarian food once a week. “When parents come to take their children, they are surprised to see them healthier,” said Sanjay Kumar Mishra, former Child Welfare Committee chairperson of Balangir. “They themselves work hard in brick kilns and survive on broken rice and onion.”

Rukmini joined the seasonal hostel of Dudkibahal Project Upper Primary School when she was six. Her father Upendra Harijan migrates regularly to work in the brick kilns of Pedapally, now in Telangana. “When Lokadrusti staff told us to enroll our children in seasonal hostels, we agreed because we understand the vulnerabilities our children face at work sites,” Harijan said. He is proud that his daughter can read and write and is in good health, and wants her to study further.

Tulasi Durya, who is in Class 8 at Government Upgrade High School in Mendhala, Nuapada, has been staying in the hostel since she was in Class 1. “Initially I didn’t like staying away from my parents and I used to cry,” Durya said. “But after Class 3 I liked the atmosphere here, love and affection of our caretaker brothers and guidance of teachers.” He is sure education will fulfill his dream of joining government service.

As caretakers of the hostels belong to the same village and know most of the children, they agree to a salary that is less than the prescribed minimum wage.

There are many success stories of children of migrant parents who had either dropped out or never stepped inside a school before they were taken in by seasonal hostels. Some like Dundi are pursuing higher studies. Many are already in private jobs. Some have become teachers, village council members and government’s daycare center workers.

Rakhi Ghosh is a journalist based in Bhubaneswar.

This article first appeared on Village Square.