By Kabir Sharma:
Kuntala Baghad had finished class ten and dropped out of school when I met her. However, she wanted to study more and do a BA.
Her father passed away when she was little; she lived with her mother who wanted her to study and do a job when she got older. But she had just spent five months working at a construction site in Delhi, trying to save up the Rs.3500 needed to fund her own admission to class 11. The only way she knew of earning was by migrating and working at a construction site or brick kiln for months, like her mother.
I heard the same story, again and again, from all the other girls and boys I met that day.
In Nuapada, Odisha and the surrounding areas, droughts strike every other year. This forces most poor families to migrate and work as bonded labour in brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, for about 6-8 months every year.
In the prevalent ‘pathria’ contract system set up by kiln owners, man, wife and child – all three, are required. There is a specific job assigned to each. The child too, by virtue of his/her small hands and light weight, is ideal for certain tasks; such as walking on long rows of drying bricks to find those that need to be turned over to face the sun to dry. Most of these kilns are known for their inhuman work conditions and cruelty.
Migration has traumatized the lives and education of these children in many ways. Going to the kilns means missing school for long stretches, and getting into child labour at a very small age; they become used to earning money, often dropping out of school altogether. There are innumerable cases of girls being raped, and horrifying stories such as palms of labourers being chopped off and small children being thrown to dogs by kiln owners; most of which go unreported as police are often bought over by kiln owners.
Earlier, every child would start working at the brick kilns from a very young age. In the last few years, seasonal hostels have opened through initiatives of the American India foundation, an NGO called Lokadrusti and the Government. As a result, children are now staying back and attending school which is a huge change.Most children here are struggling in one way or another, just to be able to study.
Rajiv Tandi has always excelled and come first in class. His family has been migrating to the kilns for the last 15 years. He has gone with them many times: earlier on as a child, and later, a few times in between his schooling, to pay school fees and buy his uniform. His father tries his best to ensure his son doesn’t need to migrate, always migrating himself to pay for his study costs. Rajiv has now taken admission in BA Political Science.
Sharat Bhoi (15) is a bright boy from an extremely poor family. He wants to become a doctor. He wakes up at 3 every day to study. The relentless regime at the kiln rendered his father unable to get up from his bed and no hospital in the area was able to diagnose the problem. Being the only other male in the family, the pressure of leaving school and earning soon is mounting.
Phalguni Rout’s father sold his only possession- a bull, for 4000 rupees to get him admitted into school. The hostel in his village has helped him as it has meant access to electricity- an opportunity to study under lights. He is the only boy in his village ever to have studied science in +2. Though his elder sister had to sacrifice her studies so that he could pay his fees, he wants his younger sister to study.
The estimated number of seasonal migrants varies highly, from 15 to 100 million. According to a study conducted some years ago, 23% of the migrant population from Nuapada – nearly 6 lakh, were minors or infants.
Today, many children are staying back and studying in Nuapada, but paying for school after class 8 (till when the RTE mandates free education) is difficult. Ironically, the desire to study, which was the reason why these children began staying back, is spurring them to migrate.
For children, the system is discouraging at every step; from abject poverty at home, to drought and migration, to being the first ever literates in their families, to having to migrate to pay their fees, to lack of earning avenues even after studying. But, there is a strong, unwavering belief among children and their parents that education can put an end to it all. And yet, here in this jungle, the belief has to fight many battles every day.