Over the course of four decades, MMC’s daycare facilities have reached 270 construction sites in Mumbai Image Credit: Supplied

Cities today are enormously unequal places. Mumbai, home to India’s richest man, 28 billionaires and 45,000 millionaires, is the wealthiest city in India and yet every sixth person lives in a slum. Two distant worlds exist side-by-side.

The paradox is that inspite of this, moving to the city is the most effective way for the poor to improve their standard of living. As real-estate developers sell their sugared dreams of swimming pools and towers in the park to the moneyed populace, uninformed and poor multitudes travel from rural areas in other states, leaving behind their village homes, to build their dreams on the higher wages offered in rapidly expanding urban spaces.

Within India, a vast migration, virtually unnoticed, occurs every day as the once-dominant agriculture industry undergoes a fundamental change.

Migrant workers have fuelled the city’s real estate boom but not reaped the benefits, says Anuradha Rajan, chief executive officer of Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC), a non-profit daycare centre that supports the children of migrant workers. “The construction industry is booming on the shoulders of migrant labourers but their lives are characterised by insecurity of wages, dangerous working conditions, and a lack of access to any kind of welfare.”

Needless to say, their working conditions have a direct impact on their children who grow up exposed to violence and abuse in hazardous living condition.

“That is not a childhood for any child. They are vulnerable, marginalised from formal schooling, daycare centres, or any form of social security,” Rajan says.

Indian children are entitled to a state education, but not all of them get one. Many migrant workers do not qualify anyway because they lack the right documents. Since states in India have great diversity in their local languages and customs, this transient population can easily go undocumented. Many children end up in low quality schools that are little more than holding pens. Worse, some fall out of schooling altogether.

Getting education is a formidable goal. But many dream that one day their young children may beat the odds, pursue college education and escape their life of casual manual labour. Their aspiration may seem increasingly unrealistic as their relentless mobility unsettles the education of their children, but right now they would settle for some kind of positive reinforcement.

For these migrant workers, MMC is the lifeline. The daycare centre supports the emotional, intellectual and physical development of their young children — from infants to 14 years of age — at city’s construction sites. At these creches, younger ones spend their days playing games, learning the alphabet while the older children join them after school.

When both parents work, children left behind at home are extremely vulnerable to physical abuse and basic safety. Children as young as five but more often young adolescents, are being left to look after the youngest members of the family, missing out on schooling and perpetuating the cycle of poverty, according to a report by the Overseas Development Institute on the hidden crisis of childcare around the world.

The problem is even more pronounced at construction sites. And this prompted Meera Mahadevan, the centre’s founder, to come up with the idea of a mobile creche at construction sites in 1969. With her friend Devika Singh, Mahadevan started the organisation in Delhi. Within a couple of years it branched out to Mumbai and Pune. Now, the centre keeps a database of children and builds creches at as many sites as possible so that children don’t lose out on a stable environment even as they move from one construction site to another with their parents.

Over the course of four decades, MMC’s daycare facilities have reached 270 construction sites in Mumbai and given more than 100,000 children what it describes as “holistic, comprehensive support system” — keeping them in school, guiding them towards health services and finding them something to eat.

“In 2016-17, over 3,000 children received age-appropriate education, nutrition and healthcare through 34 daycare centres in Mumbai and its outskirts,” Rajan says.

The MMC is also planning to expand its “sustainability model” in which, Rajan says, “the builder takes ownership of running the creches while we act as a knowledge partner.”

Across India, nearly 40 million workers migrate to other states with their families to work in the construction industry — one of the largest employment sectors in the country that accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Second-class citizens

Some children are left behind in villages by parents who hope that relatives will raise them lovingly. Another million come to the cities where they are, in effect, second-class citizens. Both groups have poorer academic performance and more behavioural problems than their peers.

“Extreme poverty and the inability of a family to sacrifice even a day’s work means children of construction labourers are among the most disadvantaged,” Rajan says.

“Older children take up the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings. In the absence of adequate nourishment and a stimulating environment, children fail to meet developmental milestones during early childhood. This affects their cognitive abilities for the rest of their lives,” she adds.

But regardless of children’s age and their standard of formal schooling, Rajan says MMC works “to encourage healthy cognitive, linguistic, physical and socio-emotional development of children”.

“For the preschoolers, toys such as building blocks and picture books facilitate active engagement through independent and guided play. We also engage them in singing jingles, dancing, storytelling and group play.”

It’s a spartan centre with few facilities but the teachers, each one trained in early childhood care and education, are dedicated. Fruit, snacks and lunch are provided at designated times. And so is regular medical attention.

“The older after-school children spend half a day at our centres getting support with their school work as they are mostly first-generation learners, read books, draw and play with other children,” Rajan says. “We also take these children on educational field trips around Mumbai.”

MMC also helps in counselling and guiding the children.

Women have also benefited too. Freeing them from the burden of child care, they now have an opportunity to work. So the families have more money to cook nutritious meals, children go to school more often as they are helped with after-school studies, and younger ones stay safe at the daycare.

In India, the lack of pre-school education or creches — or the money to pay for them — leaves women at construction sites facing the agonising choice between not earning money to feed their family, taking children with them to work and risking injury, or leaving them at home alone. Homes are often refashioned containers or flimsy shacks of tin and plywood at the sites with poor sanitation and limited access to potable water.

Also, a loophole of Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act that requires builders to provide creches with adequate accommodation for children under six only where 50 female workers are employed, exempts most construction projects from having to do so. The law is poorly implemented, and small children are often teetering at the edge of drains being de-silted by municipal authorities, or running around speeding vehicles while their parents work. Authorities are indifferent to the problem leaving the remedies to non-profit organisations such as the MMC.

“What sort of country will it be if these children are on the streets instead of in school?” Rajan asks, adding education is the key to integrating these children in society.

“Parents are kept informed about their children’s progress,” she says. “We also encourage them to spend some time in the daycare centre, reading to their children when they come to drop off and pick them up.”

Soon, the centre will roll out life-skills programmes for children aged between six and 14. But extending such services requires massive amounts of funding. “Mobilising donations and grants to run our services hasn’t been easy at well,” Rajan says, adding some resources come from builders and corporate supporters.

Another fundamental challenge is the “unpredictable” migration pattern of families at construction sites, says Rajan. On average, more than 60 per cent of children stay with the centre for less than six months.

Many new arrivals don’t speak much Hindi and are behind academically. They often come with emotional scars, having fled desperate poverty. For older children, dealing with a new environment, a new language and new people can be puzzling and intimidating but it’s not an easy task for teachers as well.

“The number of children speaking over 15 different languages varies on a daily basis. Our teachers take a lot of effort to create an inclusive classroom and introduce older children to Hindi and English,” Rajan adds.

Promoting the importance of child-friendly construction sites with different stakeholders such as the builders, civil society and the government can be an arduous task. But the centre’s core strength — its teachers — help to overcome roadblocks.

“Our teachers have been with us for over 20 years. With such high levels of commitment, the programme implementation on ground is smooth and well-monitored,” she says. “We believe that with adequate educational and social stimulation children can develop self-confidence to aspire for a life beyond the construction site.”

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.