It’s time the Centre stepped in to ensure that the children of poor migrant families receive basic education, as empowering these groups will help them fight poverty.
Education is a human right and a transformational force for poverty eradication, sustainability and peace. People on the move, whether for work or education, and whether voluntarily or forced, do not leave their right to education behind - Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
India assured all children between ages six and 14 the right to education through the 86th constitutional amendment by adding Article 21A. This was a landmark move as the resolution of the Indian state to make primary education a fundamental right was delayed by decades. Article 21A states: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine”.
Though India has made rapid progress in literacy rates after the introduction of the 86th amendment and the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the government has not addressed the primary education needs of children belonging to poor internal migrant families of the country. Internal migrants are those who move within a country, usually in one direction, from village to town or on circular routes, in pursuit of a livelihood.
Rural labourers are quintessential internal migrants as they travel to cities for work during droughts or non-agricultural seasons. Construction labourers are also internal migrants who are usually on the move. Children of these migrants are usually deprived of primary and secondary education opportunities due to lack of a permanent place of residence.
As India urbanises, the migrant population of India will continue to increase. According to the Economic Survey 2017-18, the inter-state migrant population was about 60 million, and an inter-district migration was as high as 80 million between 2001 and 2011. According to the 2001-11 Census estimates, the annual rate of growth of labour migrants doubled (from 2.4 per cent per annum in 1991-2001 to 4.5 per cent per annum in 2001-11) relative to the previous decade.
Therefore, India can no longer ignore the educational rights of children belonging to poor migrant families as are they are one of the most vulnerable groups in India. Empowering these groups with primary education will aid them in their fight against poverty.
The need for focus on Indian migrant children has been highlighted in Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report (2018), a report recently released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The report has focussed on the educational needs of migrants and refugees, and it is aptly named ‘Migration, Displacement And Education: Building Bridges Not Barriers’.
According to research cited in the report, 10.7 million children aged six to 14 lived in rural households with a seasonal migrant in 2013. About 28 per cent of youth aged 15 to 19 in these households were illiterate or had not completed primary school. This is higher than the overall illiteracy of 18 per cent. Close to 80 per cent of seasonal migrant children in seven Indian cities lacked access to education near work sites, and 40 per cent among them worked as labourers and suffered exploitation.
A survey of migrant kiln workers in Punjab cited by the report found that 60 per cent of 3,000 migrant workers were inter-state migrants. Between 65 per cent and 80 per cent of all children aged 5 to 14 years residing at the kilns were working for seven to nine hours per day. Further, 77 per cent of kiln workers reported a lack of access to early childhood or primary education for their children.
Though the RTE Act makes provisions for the education of migrant workers, the report said that many of the provisions had not been implemented due to practical challenges. A January 2012 document titled ‘RTE Section Wise Rationale/Clarification’ explaining the provisions of the act on the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) website, reiterates the responsibility of the government to facilitate the primary education of migrant children under Section 4 and Section 9 of the act.
The document admits that migrant children are among the social groups who are out of school. It also highlights that the RTE Act enables the out-of-school children to be admitted to ‘age-appropriate’ classes and complete elementary education. It facilitates the children admitted to age-appropriate classes to receive ‘special training’ to enable them to be at par with other children of their age-appropriate class.
Further, the MHRD document adds that Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan guidelines have been amended to provide support for special training to ensure that out-of-school children are integrated into the school system. It adds that the support could be in the form of residential or non-residential courses and the children receiving special training would be taught until they completed primary education. The student crossing the age of 14 years will not be a barrier according to the report.
Though the policy looks great on paper, the GEM report states that children of migrant labourers are not able to enjoy their right to education due to barriers erected by their family or the schools in their neighbourhood.
The report cited the example of Maharashtra where migrant workers were unwilling to leave their kids at boarding schools. An example of a pilot programme run at brick kiln work sites in three areas of Rajasthan state in 2010–2011 unveils the nature of barriers to primary education on the supply side. Under the programme, out-of-school children were assigned unique identification numbers to track their progress. The programme failed to improve learning substantially.
“Teachers on the sites cited culture, language, lifestyle, cleanliness and clothing as major barriers between them and the kiln labour community. Teacher and student absenteeism was rampant due to the poor teaching and learning conditions and the need for students to work at the kilns”, the report said. This problem is likely to repeat in other states as India’s linguistic diversity is mind-boggling. It would be difficult for Karnataka to provide Tamil education to a migrant labourer’s children. Similarly, it would be hard for Kerala to provide education to a migrant Hindi-speaking child.
In spite of these challenges, it is heartening to know that several attempts at addressing primary education needs of children in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have been taken up. The status of primary education infrastructure for migrants in rest of the country is yet to be ascertained.
To meet the primary education needs of migrant children, out of box solutions will have to be pursued as the brick and mortar primary schools run by the government have not succeeded in providing quality education to its students. The aim of any alternative should be to impart basic arithmetic and reading skills to every recipient of the government scheme.
The example of mobile schools in south Sudan which serves thousands of students can be explored. In addition to this, the South Sudan Interactive Radio Instruction programme can be a cost-effective and viable model in a multilingual country like India. Implemented between 2004 and 2012, the south Sudan radio programme produced 480 lessons of 30-minute duration each for students of classes I to IV. It managed to reach over four lakh children.
India can take advantage of falling internet and smartphone prices to address the lack of primary education infrastructure. In India, the south Sudan approach can be used to create modules in math, science, English and regional languages which can be accessed by migrant children. An external exam system can be set up to ensure that students can educate themselves outside brick and mortar schools. This programme can be integrated into Digital India and Digital Literacy programmes of the government. Helping hand from non-governmental organisations can also serve as a catalyst for achieving universal primary education.
The UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report (2018) provides broad-based recommendations to governments, which could improve access to education for migrants. India has fulfilled UNESCO’s recommendation to protect the educational needs of migrants through the RTE Act. UNESCO recommends governments to understand and plan for educational needs of migrants and prepare teachers to address diversity. The Centre needs to work on this aspect as primary education is under the control of state governments, which may not consider migrants as an integral part of their policy making exercise.
Though India has formulated a broad policy framework for migrant children through the RTE Act, much of it remains on paper. The time to implement them on the ground has arrived.