COVID-19 forced many to discontinue studies and join their labouring parents.
Unlike his three siblings, Arjun Naik, 11, had never stayed in a dingy room near a brick kiln along with his parents. All these years, he was a student at a residential school run by the Odisha government. His classmate, Somu Naik, was put up in such accommodation for months. It was not a pleasant experience.
Almost a year after the onset of COVID-19, schoolgoing children of migrating parents, including Arjun and Somu, are either on the verge of discontinuing their studies or preparing to labour as adolescent workers.
“My elder daughter, who is 14 years old, has already started helping me in brick making. As we keep moving from one place to another, my eldest son’s studies have been hampered. We wanted Arjun to be devoted to his studies but COVID-19 shattered our hopes. The hostel has remained closed for a year. We cannot leave our son anywhere else,” said Basila Naik, Arjun’s father, who works at a brick kiln in Bingharpur on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar.
In a nearby brick kiln, little Nandita, 11, is happy that she can join a residential school from the next academic session at Kukudakhandi in Ganjam district.
However, as uncertainty prevails over the opening of residential schools due to the pandemic, her stay at the brick kiln has been prolonged. Instead of studying, she looks after her younger siblings while her mother works at the kiln.
According to a survey conducted by Sankalp, a voluntary organisation, in five villages of the Belpada block of Balangir district, education became the lowest priority among children of brick workers during the pandemic. Of a total of 1,427 children enrolled in different schools in Kharkhara, Anlabhata, Sarmuhan, Bharuapali and Bhalukhai villages, 319 have already migrated with their parents.
Twenty children who had not accompanied their parents last year and had continued their studies, living in seasonal hostels at the Anlabhata and Bharuapali villages, migrated to brick kilns with their parents this year. “We find that parents who migrated for work had no alternative arrangement but to leave behind their children. Schoolgoing children used to stay in seasonal hostels in their areas. This year, no seasonal hostel is functioning,” said Sadanana Meher, head of Sankalp.
Last year, about 8,000 children had stayed back in seasonal hostels in four western Odisha districts and continued their studies.
Odisha Labour Minister Sushant Singh told the State Assembly that 10.07 lakh labourers had returned from other States to Odisha since October 2020. The government provided work to 7.73 lakh under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. In the southern and western Odisha districts, entire families undertake migration in search of a livelihood for six months, and then return to work in agricultural fields near their homes. Thousands of schoolchildren accompany their parents.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the loss of two [academic] years for scores of children of migrating labourers from Odisha. Schoolgoing children had migrated with their parents in October-November of 2019,” said Umi Daniel, an expert on migration. They would have resumed their studies after returning in June 2020. But schools remained closed due to the pandemic. This year, child migration has again taken place,” said Umi Daniel, an expert on migration.
“The government has to come up with a special drive to prevent mass drop-outs in schools as children are more susceptible than before due to longer absences from classrooms,” said Mr. Daniel.
In Odisha’s tribal-dominated areas, children in higher secondary classes who could not pursue education due to the lack of access to online classes, were lured with mobile phones and new clothes to work as labourers. Many of them took what was offered.
Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants
Several students from the Bonda tribe, who were staying in residential schools run by the State government in Malkangiri district, were found to have escaped to Visakhapatnam soon after lockdown restrictions were lifted in 2020.
Surendra Khara, a meritorious Kondh tribal student, who was the first from his village to study in the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Malkangiri, was about to migrate as a daily wager just to earn enough to buy a smartphone for his online classes last year. He was, however, rescued from such a fate. He could continue studying as a local tahasildar provided him with a smartphone. Not many in Odisha’s hinterland are as lucky as Surendra.