Forgotten Migrant Children and their Education During Pandemic

Author:   Chhaya Rana and Aditya Raj

Movement is indicative of life. But it might seem undesirable to think about people on move when the indiscriminate movement of a virus has halted almost everything. Some privileged may cherish it as relaxing holiday. However, it got worse each day for many. Particularly for internal migrants whose identity is associated with movements from one place to another in search of better life opportunities. We have seen the spectacle unfold on media theatre and ensuing debates. We wonder how those in decision corridors could not see through the fact that we have such a big quantum of internal migrants. The last Census of India says more than 35 percent, which means more than 450 million people as, dislocated from “home.” It is not a homogenous group and includes many children as well. Economic lens dominates migration and, therefore, migrant children are overlooked which adds to their vulnerability.

Child migrants in India

Studies on migrants have focused on male population sidelining their female counterparts while children are just out of this frame despite their significant presence. The Census of India shows that every fifth migrant is a child. We must know that around 90 million children are displaced in our country due to migration. They are referred as “luggage” and have no agency to decide for themselves that leaves them voiceless. Even during the times of pandemic, that has foregrounded the vulnerability of migrants; children remain forgotten. They only make it to the news in extraordinary circumstances. When the camera zooms on you to show you walking for hours or cycling for days like Jyoti. She is the girl who pedaled unimaginable distance on cycle carrying her father back to their home in Bihar.

Child migrants and COVID pandemic

Child migrants may go with their parents, may be left behind, or migrate independently. Their life is often spent at risk. Children in India Report 2018 mentioned that crime against children has increased and their childhood, health, or education stands vulnerable. This has been further due to COVID -19 pandemic. A UNESCO report estimates that 40% children tend to drop out from school post crisis like this. These issues with migrant children are not insular. Rather, it is a vicious cycle of poverty asking more hands that can labor leading to increase in drop out and retention rates consequently resulting in child labor as well.

Primary reasons of migration are economic and social security. Economic security that migrants find in destination location in the form of employment and social security they find back in the villages with their family. COVID has certainly hampered their economic security by shaking the certainty of job and wages as most of them are employed in informal sector. What remains is their social security back in source locations. Amidst this see-saw of social and economic security migrant children become “source of anxiety” for short term journey as well as long terms responsibility. Security of children on long tiring journeys with children when there is no operational public transport is a tough task. Further with gradual unlock of economic activities childhood care, health risk, and schooling stands as anxious responsibilities regarding migrant children.  

Undoubtedly, a migrant child does not experiences a childhood dominantly imagined. This does not mean they do not have childhood at all or they are not entitled to a likely smooth and less risky childhood.

Education of migrant children during COVID pandemic

Pre pandemic migrant reports and policy frameworks casually clubbed migrant children with “out of the school children.” Due to COVID lockdown schools have been closed globally and migrant children have suffered the most. Online platforms like Zoom, WebEx, and Google Meet have apparently come up as a panacea. These platforms seem like a techno trap that favors the privileged. Internet penetration rate in India is 43% as per TRAI.  Such facts and figures falsify the illusionary democratic outreach of online resources. Online alternative does not fit all when we have so much of access heterogeneity as well. Online books, audio books, podcasts, live online lectures can merely replace the pre pandemic physical classrooms. Actually, if rightly seen online alternative is very much class selective and discriminatory towards migrant children.

Once again educational planning stands at a cross road of failures of realizing the promises made in right to education for all.   The education of migrant children is worst hit now. Accessibility to schooling facility being strictly lined along class boundaries of society has been established as a fact by the pandemic. Same is evident in the attitude of civil society that naturally legitimizes the transformation of private schools into online schooling centers and public schools into quarantine centers. Also the private- public division as quality marker has posed structural obstruction. Particularly in the case of migrant and other vulnerable children who cannot lobby for themselves, class division leads to structural barriers on the way to economic and social mobility.

The invisibility of migrant children is larger question that has surfaced due to this pandemic. Certainly COVID is proving to be more fatal than just a health emergency. It has left the economy lagging followed by resultant rise in unemployment and disguised employment. These macro level problems will have deep embedded implications on the migrant children who were already trapped in poverty. India will be further pushed in as largest market for children to labor. Without any doubt, no education is a priority to be set over people’s lives. But how come these priorities stands changed for children from migrant background? Even as the part of post pandemic plans there is hardly any mention about migrant children and their accommodation. Most of them have trodden back to their source location. Event those who have stayed back are in no better situation. Absence of schooling with no alternative raises the question of inclusion and accountability. Whose is to be held accountable for the loss of migrant children’s education:  government at the source or destination location?

A way ahead

Global childhood report by NGO Save the Children places India poorly at 113th position out of 137 countries on the index of wellbeing of children. The rank is reflective of slack attitude assumed by state authorities as well as civil society towards children, particularly the marginal ones. Migrants have been proven as the engine of Indian economy during this pandemic. If they can adapt to a life continuously disrupted by streams and counter streams of migration; why cannot state and civil society at community level customize schooling for migrant children?  

Population register must record the number of streams and counter streams. Once these patterns in movement are identified, it will be helpful in making customized arrangements for their formal schooling. Neighbourhood school concept with some more flexibility for migrant population can help. Mobile schools or schools near the work site may not be taken seriously by children as they lie outside the ambit of formal education. Therefore quality education which is in no comparison different from a regular school should be realized as a right for migrant children. These stepping-stones are the baby steps toward inclusion to realize the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and vision of RTE. 

Migrant children too deserve a joyful childhood. The peculiarities associated with migrant life need consideration along with reconceptualization of childhood and education. A privileged childhood cannot be a yard stick to measure the paucity of resources in migrant children’s life. Lens of multiple childhoods needs to be adopted to acknowledge the migrant childhood with continued disruptions as part of life. It serves to explain the multiple childhoods that children experience due to their socio-cultural settings. Unlike other lenses, it does not measure or compare children with others who are in favorable conditions. Migrant children must be understood as those with a childhood shaped more within structural settings and less by their own agency. Hence, they need an extra effort from state and as well as civil society.



Ms Chhaya Rana is a research scholar working with Dr Aditya Raj, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Patna (Bihar) India

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