Reverse migration of the workers and the distressing visuals of their hardships while returning to their villages during and after the lockdown have raised some critical concerns. Be it the video of a migrant worker improvising a wooden cart and pulling his pregnant wife and infant daughter in their arduous journey, or that of an exhausted woman dragging her suitcase on a highway while her 5-year-old son, worn out by exhaustion and weariness, sleeps on the suitcase — these visuals stare at us with tell-tale stories of despair.
Asha (name changed), a 7-year-old girl, was in charge of guarding her 4-year-old sibling when a relief worker on Covid-19 response met her at the bus stop. Waiting patiently for her parents to return home who had gone to seek food from families nearby, the girl revealed that they were originally from Bihar.
This little family of road construction workers were now staying in a slum in Sirathu Tehsil at Kaushambhi district of Uttar Pradesh and barely had access to food for their survival. They had no idea how to go back to their village. “We don’t even have money for food. How will we travel?” was the simple question from the 7-year-old which the fieldworker hadn’t an answer to.
The nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has changed many lives, mostly those from marginalised communities. The media coverage of the sufferings of the underprivileged families was limited to the impact on their daily lives. As we move forward, it is about time that we discuss the detailed impact of the decisions that were taken in the past few months on the lives of children. The front-liners at CRY (Child Rights and You) during the extensive relief work have witnessed the helplessness of several children like Asha who stare into a dark, bleak future.
The health of children belonging to the lower strata has always been a major concern. Due to the lockdown the situation has gotten worse for children who accompanied their parents while migrating back to their villages, faced immense challenges of food and water during travel. It was just the beginning and the issue of hunger is going to loom large over them in the times to come. Due to the closure of schools during the lockdown, and the mid-day meal facility not in place, the nutrition levels of many children will soon be depleted.
They are now deprived of immunisation, basic health provisions and hygiene. ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) and Public Health centres were completely shut during the lockdown period bringing all essential services like Polio vaccinations, routine immunisations, availability of IFA (Iron & Folic Acid) tablets, take-home rations (THR) and pre-natal/post-natal care of pregnant women to halt in most of the states.
Thus, the risk of undoing the gains of previous years in improving infant and maternal mortality rates and immunisation targets is very high. The suspension of the usual sanitation and hygiene services at the community level have also increased the chances of higher incidences of diarrhoea, jaundice, typhoid and other water-borne diseases.
Sadly, many vulnerable children (especially in the 15-18 age group) migrate alone for work as well. During the lockdown period they were either not paid or were deserted by their employers. The children who were working under hazardous conditions are at extreme risk as the employers cannot disclose their identities (due to the illegal hiring), making their rescue or provision of relief impossible.
To watch their families suffer creates a deep sense of anxiety, insecurity and extreme psychological pressure on children and leaves them vulnerable for life. The long-lasting emotional impacts of such incidents on their lives and overall personality are immense. The children of the workers have seen thousands of people around them crying, dying and begging for food, for life. Their plight is beyond comprehension.
Additionally, they are at an even higher risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and even trafficking. Trafficking is a massive threat in overcrowded areas, trains/buses, transit camps, where such predators are extremely active. Inaccessibility to education at this stage also exposes children to crime and other abuse besides leaving them homeless. This acute and severe stress on children during their formative years can impact their self-esteem and decision-making abilities lifelong, thereby affecting their learning outcomes and retention in school.
Even before the pandemic the frequent movement adversely impacted the continuity of education for children of migrant workers. Many children get enrolled but do not attend school due to seasonal migration. Either they remain out of school or attend pre-school centres run by civil society organisations at work sites.
This year, however, will keep many more children away from school, pushing them into child labour. Due to the gap in schooling, loss of family’s income and loss of interest due to no access to online or broadcast classes, many children might never return to schools.
As one of the leading child rights organisation in India, CRY has been providing relief and rehabilitation services to vulnerable children and communities. We have reached out to the government and frontline workers to deliver essential services. But there are miles to go and the Government, civil society organisations and the private sector must join hands in this journey.
The focus must be on education and survival. Children must get enough food and nutrition. They must have their own food packets in every relief operation, and milk and other weaning products must be part of the package for younger children.
We need to focus on them as individual entities and not as an extension of their parents. Protein-rich nutrients and food diversity will boost their immunity and strength. We must also realise that uncooked food is of little help as migrants do not have access to kitchens.
Those still returning to their native villages should be provided with usable public toilets with proper sanitation for hygiene, and their dignity as well. Relief camps, transit camps and quarantine facilities at state borders, block or panchayat level must arrange safe and child-friendly shelters where nutritious food, water and sanitation facilities must be provided.
The overcrowded and under-performing Public Health Centres in villages need necessary financial and other support to be able to tackle health emergencies. They must also attend to and admit the returning migrants without discrimination. In all of this, we must not forget our girls. They are vulnerable to being left behind and married off as a result of abject poverty. We also tend to forget about their menstrual health during emergent times.
It is time for local governments to step up to the task. Tracking all children of migrant families, registering them, extending ICDS services to even unregistered ones, maintaining continuity of immunisation, supplementary nutrition and other maternal and child care services are the imperatives of the hour.
Appropriate measures need adequate investments, and that truly is the call of the day for the Government at every level. For, in words and action, we must all be in this crisis “together”, leaving behind no child and no marginalised family.
Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY.
CRY is an Indian NGO that has, for over 4 decades, worked with parents and communities to ensure lasting change in the lives of more than 3,000,000 underprivileged children, across 19 states in India. For more information please our website.