Building India - Really?

Anjali Alexander

Pramila from Bilaspur has been on five different construction sites in the last seven years in Delhi . She feels that everything is temporary here: her stay, the site, the job and life itself. She has lost many things during her moves, mud pots, tulsi plants …

It's a familiar story - families moving in search of work, from village to the city, from paddy fields to brick kilns, from quarries to construction sites, with children, pots and pans, few clothes and little else. For hundreds of thousands of young children in India today, this movement is the only constant they know. This was the context that gave birth to the idea of Mobile Crèche, born out of compassion for children, indignation at their plight and the determination to make a change.

Mobile Crèche (MC), born on a construction site, provides a safe and nurturing shelter for the children of construction workers, right next to their hutments, right there on the building site. The mothers drop the children off in the morning, reassured in the knowledge that the little ones would be fed, washed, put to bed, cared for and loved, while they toil in the sun. "It was a fight then, simply to gain entry to the sites and it's a fight today, to get for the workers and their children what is their due."

The logo of MC captures the whole story of Mobile Crèche: an unskilled female worker carrying a headload, a school-age girl who wants to study, and an infant in a baby-hammock who needs care. The woman worker carries the load of multiple responsibilities -managing home, raising children and earning a living through unskilled, casual work. Today, 140 million Indian women work in the informal sector, without access to minimum wages or maternity support. The school-age girl shares home chores, and is often pulled out of school to take care of the young ones. Only three out of four girls, 6-10 years of age, are enrolled in school and many of them drop out before finishing Grade V. The infant suffers the greatest neglect as the mother leaves for work soon after delivery, and the little sister is no substitute for a responsible care-giver. There are 60 million under-6 children living in poverty, in dire need of care.

The interconnectedness of the lives of women, girls, and babies is self-evident. A critical link in the development chain is access to childcare services -enabling the young to blossom, their older siblings to go to school and their working mothers to earn a wage – nurturing three generations with one crèche! In 1969, MC intervened in the lives of all three by setting up childcare services for the children of migrant construction workers at large construction sites in Delhi . In the last 38 years MC has cared for at least 650,000 children, trained over 6000 childcare workers, and run more than 550 daycare centres.

What sets MC apart from other organizations working with children is the dual focus on the young child and the migrant child. Mobile links them to the migrant and Crèche binds them to the infant.

The early years of life -when a child learns to talk, walk, socialize and reason -are the most vulnerable as well as potentially the most rewarding. Before the age of 6, and especially during the first 3 years, the brain grows to 80 per cent of the adult size. Child specialists know that the early years are fundamental to the development of personality and learning capacities. Research shows that quality early childhood education increases retention in school in the primary grades and impacts mathematics learning in later years. Studies have also proven that investing in young children leads to gains in productivity, reduction in curative costs and a passing on of benefits to the next generation -benefits estimated at 9-16 times the cost. So, invest in young children – it's the right thing to do, and it pays!

The migrant child is a special, most neglected sub-category. Especially since, increasingly, migration is for survival and over longer distances. Children are constantly on the move and the mothers leave their babies untended for long hours. For the children moving from village to city, estimated at 18 million across India , breast feeding is difficult, if not impossible, malnutrition is high and older children take on the burden of caring for younger siblings or earning a living. Girls left behind in the village are pushed into early marriage. Immunizations are hardly ever complete and schooling is always disrupted. Government programmes cater to settled communities with stable voting populations and migrant children fall through the cracks.

The MC Centre at work sites and slums works as the hub -training ground and springboard -and the Crèche Worker, the lynch pin - the caregiver, communicator and mobilizer. MC uses this springboard to scale up its reach in the long run by advocatingon policies , laws and programmes with corporate partners and governments, and training childcare workers from the community, other NGOs and state run programmes to create childcare alternatives as well as enhance quality of services.

Mobile Creches' interventions range from awareness building on early childcare issues through nukkad nataks across Delhi and setting up of home-based crèches in the slum bastis to facilitating community-based childcare arrangements, for tussar-reeling women, as far away as the remote villages of Jharkhand and providing policy inputs to the Planning Commission. The first centrally sponsored crèche scheme, the National Crèche Fund and in 1996, the passage of the Construction and Other Building Workers Act, was a consequence of joint advocacy with other organizations and networks working on child, gender and labour issues.

The construction boom today is reminiscent of the late 60s that constituted the backdrop of this pioneering movement in Early Childhood Care and Development. According to The Economist, May 2006, some 450 shopping malls are being built in India today. In Delhi alone, construction worth Rs. 26,000 crores will take place over 2007-11, and a big part of that is related directly to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 2010. A world-class city is in the making that carries the promise of NRI lifestyles and successful Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) for a new generation of consumers and investors. Thousands of workers will build the new city , but as players in the CWG enterprise, they are, as yet, nowhere in the State's vision.

The Construction Workers Welfare Fund for workers under the Construction and Other Building Workers Act, 1996, has Rs.110 crores in its coffers. Registration with the Delhi Construction Workers Welfare Board is a pre-requisite to accessing benefits financed by this Fund. Only 3000 workers, less than 1 per cent of the number in Delhi , have been registered till now. A small beginning has, however, been made: 100 workers were registered at the Thyagaraja Sports Complex in Delhi, the first CWG site to do this, where workers received life insurance and temporary ration cards.

Will the story of the migrant worker on the margins of the city, epitomized by Balraj Sahni in Bimal Rai's “Do Beegha Zameen”, get replaced by the travails of the NRI migrant in New York and London ? Or is there hope that the CWG 2010 will not be another Asiad '82?

Will we be content with the happy ending of the 9 per cent GDP growth for the few? Or will we try and look beneath the statistic of the 300 million below the poverty line, to discover the real people who constitute these numbers in our backyard – on the neighbouring construction site, or in the homes of our electricians, plumbers, drivers and cleaners?

Will we wait forever, for the trickle down to the bottom of the pyramid? Or will we start to do something, in our own small way, to ensure our children are granted their simple wishes - eating to their heart's content, wearing clean clothes, going to school, having fun with friends and getting love and care?