Odisha bridges schooling gap for migrant children at brick kilns

A drive by the School and Mass Education dept in collaboration with Aide et Action is helping children of migrant families escape the drudgery at kilns and get back to schools, writes Diana Sahu
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations)

BHUBANESWAR: Far from the dust and grime of a brick kiln, 12-year-old Rinku and many others like her use their imagination to draw flowers and trees on slate boards with colourful chalks at the Bhubanpur Project UP School in Balianta. It is an activity day at the school, their happy space where there is food to eat and freedom to play, express and explore.

This, though, isn’t the case back home - huts close to large brick kilns where their parents toil for 18 hours a day. Till a few years back, the children would have been asked to help in making bricks as has been the practice in the past. But not any more. A drive by the School and Mass Education department in collaboration with Aide et Action is helping such children escape the drudgery at kilns.

In Khurda, Cuttack and Balasore districts that are the major destination districts for brick kiln workers, the department has been mainstreaming these vulnerable children in regular schools for elementary education (Class 1 to 8) as per the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandate. The department calls it a bridge course.

Before seasonal migration (November to June) begins, labour sardars pay an advance of Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh to families - primarily farmers with little or no land holding - to work in brick kilns for six months. “At the kilns, a family is considered a working unit that is paid Rs 800 to Rs 850 wage for every 1,000 bricks it makes. Hence, the entire family contributes including the elderly and children,” said Umi Daniel, Director - Migration & Education - Aide et Action. In the process, the child discontinues classes during the peak academic year.

Previously, there were worksite schools near the kilns but they didn’t help much. After implementation of the RTE Act, teachers of regular schools near the kilns began mainstreaming these children into the institutions.

The drive began in 2015 at Bhubanpur school but results started showing only recently after several years of counselling of kiln owners and the workers to allow the children to study.  Khurda and Cuttack districts have 36 large brick kilns. Balianta block in Khurda has 11 kilns and Cuttack nine kilns in Baranga, 10 in Kantapada and six in Cuttack Sadar.

There are five schools near the kilns in Balianta and eight close to the kilns in Cuttack district with over 400 migrant children enrolled in them. “Only a few of them are dropouts or have never been to school. The rest are enrolled in schools at their native places but have discontinued their education to accompany their parents to the kilns,” said Khurda District Planning Coordinator of the department Manaswini Pradhan.

In Balianta, 200 children have been admitted since December last year. While 20 pc of these children are from states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the rest have migrated from within the state. Similarly in Cuttack district, 236 migrant children have been admitted to eight schools.

A similar drive is being implemented at Balasore district with 64 children. “After the children arrive in the kilns towards November end, the cluster resource coordinators of the department visit them to do a head count and counsel the kiln owners and workers to send the children to nearby schools,” said Rajlaxmi Mohapatra, assistant teacher at Bhubanpur school which has 80 such children this year.

While children from other states are taught separately in Hindi, those from within the state attend classes with the regular students. They are not just provided mid-day meals but also free textbooks, uniforms, shoes and stationery.

To ensure their regular attendance, the department also provides them escort and transport (autorickshaw) services from the kilns. Government has sanctioned Rs 1,800 for each of the 500 children in the three districts for the 2022-23 academic year. At the end of six months, they will be provided a transfer certificate which would help them continue education in their natives or any other place where their parents migrate.

For the children, the journey from brick kilns to classrooms has been a happy one." I used to dry the bricks with my father, sometimes 200 in a day. But in school, studying and drawing are fun," said Rinku who has come to Balianta for the second time with her parents Madhu and Sriram Naik from Nuapada.

Unlike in the past when they were forced to migrate to kilns that the labour sardar decided for them, Madhu and Sriram have been choosing to migrate to Balianta because they are sure about her education and food now while they toil in the kiln.

"We come to these kilns after agriculture work in our village is over. There was no such schooling initiative in other districts where we have worked in the past. Here, Rinku's class teachers have not only enrolled her in school but also make sure that she attends classes every day. We want our daughter to complete her schooling," said Sriram who is an agriculture labourer for six months a year.

There are other benefits of this system too, said Daniel. The children, despite discontinuing education at their parent schools, do not have to go to the previous grade in the new academic session when they return home. "The transfer certificate would help them continue their schooling wherever they go," he added.

To further this initiative, the Commissionerate Police of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack is coming up with a 'code of conduct' for brick kiln owners in Khurda and Cuttack under which, they are required to ensure that all children coming to the kilns are admitted to the local government schools.

“It is the duty of brick kiln owners that no children will be engaged in labour works as per the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act 2016 and kiln operators have to declare the premise as a child labour free zone,” reads the draft code of conduct.

(This story has been supported by The Work: No Child's Business Alliance, run by Save the Children Netherlands, UNICEF Netherlands, and Stop Child Labour Coalition.)

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