By Kavita Tiwari
While we see images of a massive number of migrant labourers out on the road, desperately wanting to reach home, the faces and voices of migrant children are mostly absent in mainstream media. Nevertheless, their non-representation does not imply their non-existence. What is happening to them during COVID-19? What are their problems? How is their childhood getting affected?
There is a buzz about online schooling for children all around us during COVID-19. Ed-tech seems to provide a solution to the problem of access to 'school knowledge' when the school cannot be approached physically in a lockdown situation. The central and state government bodies, school leaders, teachers, NGOs, edu-preneurs, and parents are all coming together to ensure the Right to Education of their children during this pandemic situation. On the one hand, the questions of access to digital resources, quality of learning/teaching, emerging pedagogies prevail but, on the other hand, the assumption is that all children are safely in their homes and in a position to attend school from home. At this point, I raise concerns related to migrant children.
The state does not care about their Right to Education; it is not an urgent concern now. It has never been otherwise as well. Our education system is not equipped to include children on the move. School enrollment means the documentation of the child as a student at that location. The school authorities can trace and try making provisions for them. However, this cannot be possible for a large number of migrant children who are on their way to home, as various researches show that most migrant children fall under the 'out of school' category. A majority of them belong to families of seasonal migrants. Who cares about experiences of children on the move when the world seems to have come to a rest mode? Migrant children, who are tackling with other significant challenges than schooling, are worst affected in these times.
According to the UNESCO report of 2013, there were around 15 million migrant children in India, which has probably risen by now. There are broadly three categories of children associated with migrants: (i) stayers/ left behind, the children whose parents have migrated for work leaving them back at home (ii) children who migrate with their family (iii) independent migrants( the children moving independently often in search of employment)
For non-migrants, lockdown implied going into their homes, being safe and maintaining physical distancing to prevent the risk of COVID-19 infection. What is home for inter-state migrant children, especially when they were told to remain locked down inside their 'home'? They are not privileged enough to stay home without having any work to earn their livelihood. What home are we talking about? They are locked in the cities, trying to find the key leading to their native homes.
For stayers (children whose parents have migrated for work leaving them behind), the wait for their parents to come back would seem endless now. For them, ‘home’ is not home without their parents and other migrant members of their family. Who would not want to be with their own people in such an unprecedented situation? They are locked down in their house with the hope that one day their house will become home. For their daily nutrition and health expenses, they are dependent on the money sent by their parents. With Covid, they are directly facing the adverse impact of the loss of their parents' daily earnings.
Independent migrant children migrate all alone, leaving their families back at their place of origin. Staying alone makes them more vulnerable to child-trafficking and exploitative labour. Sometimes they have the moral support of their family and sometimes, they are all alone. In the current scenario, they too have lost their source of income and the hope of regaining it.
Children are witnessing their parents’ struggles to return to their native places with no money, or food or even water. "Please send us some money. We do not have anything left. Even the contractor is refusing to pay us. What should we do? We will die of hunger and thirst," were the final words Krishnawati Singh recalls from the last conversation with her husband. The next morning, her husband, along with a few other migrants from Madhya Pradesh were crushed to death by a speeding train having fallen asleep on a railway track. Their children are hearing and having conversations about how to arrange food and water , where to stay the next day, which route to take back home, and who will come to help them escape this cage. Forget the physical distancing, sanitizing and testing- the only ways to keep oneself safe from the COVID-19 infection- the state has been incapable of providing this population with even basic food and security of shelter.
What sense of hope are these children living with when constantly surrounded with the fear of death, loss of dear ones, and starvation every moment of the day. The unplanned lock down was the state's preventive COVID-19 policy for its citizens. However, the irony is that these anxieties and fears that plague the migrant population, including young children, are the consequence of the same policy that keeps the rest of the nation safe.
Who are the citizens of this country? Whose well-being matters and whose does not? Which children have a Right to Education? What about those still fighting for their fundamental right to life and food? There is no 'one' childhood. Life is filled with only fears and anxieties for migrant children charting their own course of childhood. How will the present experience of crisis shape them as individuals and affect their journey?
*Kavita Tiwari is currently pursuing her MA in Education at the School of Education Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi