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Cultivating Hope in the Anything-but-Green: Mobile Creches’ Work with Children in India’s Migrant Labor Camps

By Katie Meave Murphy

Towering frames of colossal apartment buildings punctuate the Noida skyline, testifying to the magnitude of the fast-paced urban sprawl of New Delhi’s National Capital Region (NCR). There is reason for optimism. Indications of India’s economic prosperity and increasing social mobility abound on glossy billboards advertising luxury apartments. And touting strict standards of energy and environmental design, Noida officials recently reported a “Green” classification for nearly 80% of Noida buildings (Aradhak, 2014).

Yet there is reason for concern.  Sitting at the base of the partially constructed towers, ripples of heat hover above the fragments of tin sheets that form the patchwork of huts and structures of migrant labor camps. The 860 camps within the NCR, known as jhuggi jhophri slum clusters, serve as makeshift homes for2 over 400,000 men, women, and children (Hindustan Times, 2013).  They come from diverse cultures and states within India to work as low-skilled and unskilled laborers in the construction industry.  Lack of legal identity or residency status renders the migrant laborers vulnerable to exploitation, as they often are over-worked, under-paid and living in harsh conditions without access to essential health, water, and sanitation services. With an average of 1 toilet per 114 people (Mobile Creches, 2009) and in close proximity to the hazardous dust and debris of the construction sites, these camps are anything-but-green.

In India, a significant proportion of migratory workers are in the unorganized construction sector.  These workers – who largely come from poor, rural households belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe – are often unskilled laborers that form the foundation of the booming construction industry, an industry that is primarily controlled by the upper class.  Informal agents of the construction industry, or middlemen, play an active role in recruiting women and men in rural villages to come and work in urban or peri-urban construction sites. In turn, the middlemen typically receive a portion of each worker’s daily wage. Historically without access to formal banking services, migrant construction workers have been particularly vulnerable to theft, unfair wage payments and a restricted ability to generate savings. This unregulated system perpetuates an intergenerational cycle of poverty, dependency, and marginalization, increasing the vulnerability of children and families as they move between sites, and underscoring the vast inequities between casual workers and their employers.

Regulatory measures, such as the Building and Other Construction Workers Act of 1996, mandate the establishment of state welfare boards to protect workers’ rights and ensure adequate standards of accommodation, water, sanitation, wages, and other services.  Yet despite the existence of such laws, they are loosely enforced in the diffuse and dynamic sector of the construction industry. And some regulations, such as the requirement of childcare services for any construction site employing 50 or more women, offer clear avoidance strategies. Leaving the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, I shared a taxi ride with an Australian representative for a large construction company. After learning that his company had no childcare services in any of his sites, I asked: “Is that legal?”  He responded quickly and confidently: “Sure it is. Just don’t hire more than 49 women at any site.”

With more than 15 million female construction workers in India, construction is the second largest sector of female employment after agriculture (Barnabas, 2011). Typically accompanying their mothers and families to the labor camps, children are particularly vulnerable to disease, exploitation, and poor developmental outcomes. When childcare services are not available to young children during the day, working parents have limited options: leave children in the care of older children – further limiting opportunities for older children to attend formal school – or bring the young children to the construction sites.

During interviews and field visits to construction sites in the NCR in June and July 2011, mothers explained the reasons for bringing children to the construction site.  As one mother recounted: “I used to bring my child to the site because she was only 7 months and I was breastfeeding. I had to work. I had no choice.”  Accounts of injured, malnourished, and at times physically or sexually abused children reverberated through conversations with mothers at the construction sites. Without adequate childcare in construction sites, they were incessantly weighing their options. In their home villages, they had the benefit of familial support for childcare, yet they lived in destitute poverty and hunger. In the construction site, they had an opportunity to earn money and potentially provide better lives for their children in the future, yet they endured hardship and risked the health and wellbeing of their families in the near-term.

Dangerous conditions on construction sites and within migrant labor camps have a long history in India, and many dedicated individuals and organizations have made great strides toward improving conditions. Among the most prominent, dedicated, and enduring of these organizations is Mobile Creches, based in New Delhi.

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The inception of Mobile Creches (MC) arose from an outrageous paradox: in celebration of Gandhi’s Centenary in 1969, the Government of India commissioned a large Exhibition Pavilion in downtown Delhi, constructed by unskilled laborers that had migrated from rural areas to work in deplorable conditions.  Meera Mahadevan, one of the founders of MC, observed small children at the hot, dusty, and dangerous construction site while their parents worked to earn daily wages. For Mahavedan, the tragic situation was an urgent call to action, and the first mobile crèche was established in the labor camp across the street from the construction site to provide basic care and health services to migrant children.

The history of Mobile Creches reminds us that the existence of toxic conditions in migrant work camps is not a new phenomenon spurred only by the recent increases in economic prosperity.  Over the course of 45 years, including earlier work in Mumbai and Pune, MC has reached approximately 750,000 children, trained over 6,500 childcare workers and established 650 daycare centers. Through negotiations and partnerships with over 200 construction companies and contractors, they have been able to develop cost-sharing models to support services for children from birth to 12 years of age. In construction sites where MC operates, mothers are ensured the right to leave the worksite to breastfeed their children in the safe environment of the crèche.  As expressed by the mothers in the construction sites, the childcare services supported by MC have dramatically affected the health and wellbeing of their children and families.  Doctors’ visits, nutritious meals, games, learning activities, songs and dances now comprise part of the normal routine for these migrant children.

5While the establishments of daycare centers and improved work conditions within construction sites have had a direct impact on a substantial number of children and families, the entire population of migrant children cannot be covered by a few non-government organizations alone.  Recognizing the magnitude of the issues confronting migrant families, MC has championed a tireless advocacy campaign for early childhood development and migrant families and has played a leading role in the Forum for Crèche and Child Care Services (FORCES), since its establishment in 1989.  As a national policy network, FORCES engages non-governmental organizations, state agencies, Early Childhood experts, trade unions among others in a broad range of advocacy efforts – spanning grassroots mobilization to research to policy intervention.

The impact of the advocacy efforts of MC and their partners can be noted in some recent milestones for migrant children. In September 2013, the Government of India adopted the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy, which acknowledged the need to provide holistic care for children from conception to 6 years of age, with a particular emphasis on marginalized children. As part of this new policy, India’s Integrated Childhood Development Services (ICDS), which has primarily focused on health and nutrition and has so far only been able to reach less than 50% of the 139 million children under 6, is now in the process of expansion to universal child care services, drawing from key elements of the MC model.

For migrant families, there is more good news: one of the major hurdles they have long confronted in trying to access the formal banking sector has recently been lifted, and the Reserve Bank of India announced that they will soften their identification and address verification requirements to open bank accounts (The Indian Express, 2014).

With the promise of improved educational and financial services for migrants on the horizon, and the vital interventions of organizations such as Mobile Creches, there is hope that the children living in the labor camps and slums may have better access to critical services.  At the same time, concern for the migrant children, absent and ignored in the boastful depictions of the NCR’s sprawling “green” expansion, warrants continued efforts to ensure that they have equitable opportunities to thrive and reach their full potential.

Author: 

Katie Maeve Murphy is a PhD candidate at University of Pennsylvania in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development and is interested in ways to improve developmental, educational, and health outcomes for children in low-income and impoverished settings.  Katie has a Master’s in Public Health from the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn, an Ed.M. in International Education Policy from Harvard and a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University. She has extensive experience working with international development and education projects in Central America and Mexico, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia. While completing her PhD, Katie is currently working as a consultant for several international initiatives focused on Early Childhood Development and Education and is a lecturer in Social and Behavioral Sciences for Penn’s MPH program.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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