The seasonal migrant labour population of India is estimated by some scholars to be as high as 100 million. They face barriers in accessing social services and settling permanently in urban areas; they often prefer to keep their link with the village, especially during the agricultural season. As a result, they “circulate” between their villages and various “destination areas” for work, spending significant portions of the year away from home.

While migration can open new economic possibilities for families, it also comes with high risks. These risks are disproportionately felt by the children of migrants who are often compelled to travel to worksites with their parents. Some have estimated that around six million school-aged children in India participate in family-based labour migration every year. Millions more are impacted indirectly, forced to take on most of the household responsibilities in their parents’ absence. Unfortunately, neither the Central nor state governments have made migrant children a priority.

Student hostels

Consider the case of the migratory hostel programme run by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the flagship programme for universalising elementary education. The idea is simple but effective: at the request of the local school, students who would otherwise be forced to migrate with their parents are allowed to stay in the primary school building for the six-month migration period. SSA provides for two wardens hired from the community, meals, and some basic supplies. The programme is cost-effective because it uses facilities that are already available at the local school. Besides, children can focus on their studies and stay within the safety of their own villages.

Unfortunately, due to a “change in priorities”, the Central government has decided to deny funding to Rajasthan’s 80 migratory hostels for the upcoming year. Closing this programme — a small component of SSA’s budget — will have deep repercussions for many vulnerable families in Rajasthan.

Evidence from my fieldwork in southern Rajasthan, as well as a review of social protection strategies for migrants, shows that “source-based” intervention, such as setting up migratory hostels, in the areas where migrants originate are needed to prevent child migration and child labour.

The urban areas of central Gujarat have long been a popular destination for poor migrants from Scheduled Tribe communities from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat itself. They work in the brick kiln, construction, cotton ginning and agricultural industries.

High numbers of women

A 1997 study on migration in the area led by David Mosse found that 42 per cent of the migrant workforce from the Bhil area was female. My survey in villages in Banswara district of southern Rajasthan revealed that 75 per cent of women and 82 per cent of men had migrated to Gujarat for work at least once in their lifetime. While almost all ST families in this area own some land, their landholdings are small and often unproductive. Massive deforestation in the region has also limited opportunities for these communities which, at one time, sustained their livelihoods off the forest.

While some have been able to harness their earnings from migrant labour to move ahead economically, most remain burdened with economic insecurity and indebtedness to local moneylenders. Nor has the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) had much effect on the migration patterns of families in southern Rajasthan.

While 79 per cent of adults surveyed reported that they had participated in the scheme, only a few families said it had impacted their migration behaviour; 75 per cent of adults who reported they had migrated within the past year had also participated in MGNREGS at least once.

Reliance on migrant labour as a livelihood strategy has major costs to the family. For instance, among the most marginalised communities, the whole family must migrate to the worksite because they have no place to leave their children in the home village. The Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action estimates there are 8,40,000 out-of-school children at brick kilns alone. In Banswara, 34 per cent of the migrant households had taken at least one child with them to worksites that year. Even five-year-olds start working in the brick kiln industry where the piecemeal wage system encourages child labour.

Risks to children

Children brought to worksites face the risk of injury, illness and exploitation, while missing out on educational opportunities. Various NGOs, many with funding by the American India Foundation (AIF), have piloted educational outreach for children at worksites. Worksites cannot be easily made into education-friendly environments, however, making any benefits from such interventions marginal. Accordingly, AIF, which supports migratory hostel programmes for high-migration areas in three states, has shifted its Learning and Migration Programme (LAMP) from a dual focus on source and destination areas to one entirely source village-centric.

With both parents migrating, there are increasing incidences of child-headed households in southern Rajasthan. In their parent’s absence, children as young as 12 must manage all household responsibilities and care for younger siblings, leaving them little to no time to attend school. Many schools I visited had a dropout rate of around 25 per cent.

Many of Rajasthan’s 4,10,957 out-of-school children have exited due to migration pressures. Re-integrating them into the school system is done through the SSA’s special training programmes (STPs), bridge courses to prepare them academically for entry into the age appropriate standard in school. This is a daunting task both for the hired contract teacher and for the students, who may have already been in the workforce for a few years. It is not surprising, therefore, that many STPs fail. During the year I conducted fieldwork in Banswara, over a third of the STPs in the district had to be shut down. The most successful STPs were the ones with residential facilities like the migratory hostels.

Since migration-induced dropouts account for much of the out-of-school population, particularly in the ST areas, it makes sense to invest in dropout prevention. The migratory hostels, as well as the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya programme of girls’ residential primary schools, have both proven to be effective in preventing migration-induced dropouts. Research across India is beginning to piece together a picture of an increasingly mobile labour class. Addressing the risks faced by this population, especially those felt by the children, must be made a key priority in order for India to meet its development targets.

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. The writer is a CASI research coordinator. She was a 2012-13 Fulbright-Nehru student research fellow