Education is among the 17 goals laid out by the UN in its agenda to bring about sustainable development and prosperity. Quality education is an important goal of the UN SDG initiative and the UN hopes that all countries will have achieved this goal by 2030. Even in India, after the insertion of Article 21-A into the Constitution, education has become a fundamental right, with the government required to provide education to students between the ages of 6-14. Since then, primary education enrollment rates around the country have increased. A UNESCO study in 2018 suggested that age-specific enrollment rates across the country are north of 90 per cent, suggesting the effectiveness of the RTE Act as well as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. However, there remain many flaws in the country’s educational framework.
While interning in rural Rajasthan last winter, I observed the poor state of primary schools at the village level, as children across multiple grades were being taught by the same teacher, and this teacher took turns at teaching the students, during which time the other students were left unattended. The entire school, that taught students from Grade 1 to Grade 5 and had hundreds of students, had just two teachers, and one of them was regularly tied up in
administrative work, leaving just one teacher to deal with the needs of hundreds of students. While talking with the teacher at the school, I also came to know of another major issue facing education at rural levels. In large parts of rural India, many workers migrate seasonally to urban areas seeking work. However, a lot of these workers take their children along on these migrations, quite often in the middle of the school year, affecting the educational abilities of these students and posing a threat to the long term effectiveness of the govt’s educational policies.
Projects that studied the educational attainment of children in 70 villages in 5 outmigration prone districts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat found that children who had migrated the year prior to the survey had lower grade for age than the ones who did not. They were also at a disadvantaged position in terms of ever attending school or going to school on the day before the survey. Further, they found the gap to be increasing as the child grew older. Outward migration is a significant hurdle in the government’s plan to ensuring quality education for all groups. Most worryingly, the government does not have data specifically relating to children who seasonally migrate. We only know that there are 10.7 million in the 6-14 age range who have at least one parent who seasonally migrates. This itself shows the gravity of the situation in front of us.
Since the early 2010s, there have been discussions in policy circles about tackling the problem of education among migrant children. In the eleventh Five-year Plan, a policy of developing Integrated Child Development Services at the destination of migrant children was launched. This would ensure that data on the children was collected, and that they could then be assisted with joining nearby schools. Another approach has been the policy of setting up seasonal hotels, to provide the children with a place to stay while their parents migrate to urban areas to work. These seasonal hotels also provide education to children. However, most of these strategies have not been implemented to the extent required. There have also been many issues with the pace of implementation.
Maharashtra has been a trendsetter in this regard. When the state noticed parents being circumspect of its seasonal hotel program, it came up with a new community-based arrangement for taking care of children while the parents were away. This strategy has been more successful than the seasonal hotel one. However, for the most part, governments have been very slow with regards to the implementation of policies. They have also been slow at experimenting when existing policies have clearly proven to be failing. This can be seen by the fact that despite decades of being aware of this problem, governments have done very little to resolve the key issues related to this crisis. Efforts have still not been made to make schools multi-lingual or at least more friendly to children who do not understand the language of instruction. This continues to be the primary barrier to migrant children enrolling in schools at their destination, as they have trouble understanding the topics being taught. Inter-state cooperation also remains poor, with destination states, for the most part, waiving off all responsibility for migrant children from other states.
All of these issues have contributed to a crisis where countless generations of children have been resigned to a life of poverty. Most migrant children do not have basic literacy skills, preventing them from climbing up the economic ladder. There is also a strong correlation between outward migrating families and the country’s tribal and lower caste communities.
Most migrant children come from poor families, a fact that already places them at a huge disadvantage. The poor policies of central and state governments have only solidified their disadvantage, trapping them in a life of poverty. With migrant children, governments have not only failed at providing them with access to education, they have also failed in extending any duties upon the employers of these children’s parents at providing the children with education. Education is extremely important for economic growth and productivity increases. Studies have shown that proper access to education among disadvantaged communities plays a major role in reducing social ills such as income inequality, drug addiction and other issues. Moreover, studies have also shown that human capital could account for up to 62 percent of national wealth, and that every extra year in school could give a 10% return on investment. Amidst all these advantages of education, it is tragic to see education for a large number of children being ignored.
The neglect of education for migrant children is a major tragedy of the education system. This neglect has occurred because most of these children come from marginalised communities, and they and their parents do not have a voice in either their home districts or the districts that they migrate to. This neglect only furthers the social and economic inequalities that exist in our country and goes against the government’s own objectives of reducing the social and economic inequalities that afflict us. Action on these issues has to be taken urgently, especially in light of the current government’s infrastructure push. Massive construction works throughout the country are projected to employ an increasing number of workers, a lot of whom will likely bring their children along with them. If governments do not quickly develop and scale strategies to educate these children, we will perpetuate another generation of poverty, and each incidence of this poverty would be upon us.
Therefore, as a nation, unless we are comfortable with millions of our population being unable to sustain themselves in an age where technology is making education increasingly important to economic success, we must take steps to ensure these children do not fall behind. The COVID-19 crisis has made us aware of the problems faced by our migrant community, however, any steps we take in the aftermath must look to solve their issues from a multi-generational perspective, lest it would remain a band-aid protecting a wound that could re-emerge again at any point in the future.
Utkarsh Rai is a second-year law student at Jindal Global Law School.