Rajkot: Bhurabhai Sangla*, native of Gujarat’s Dhanpur Tehsil in Dahod, migrates every year to western Gujarat with his family, where they work as ‘Bhagiya’ (wage sharecroppers) for six to nine months.

Sharecropping agriculture is a tradition where a verbal arrangement takes place between the landowner and the worker’s family to the effect that that the Bhagiya family will get a share, or bhag, of the output, varying from one-sixth to one-fourth, in return for cultivating the land.

Sangla has been cultivating land as a Bhagiya in Gujarat’s Morbi district for the last eight years, basis an agreement to receive a one-fourth share of the output. The family has brought along five of their six children. Their older son, currently studying in grade II, stayed back in Dahod with his grandparents to keep his education uninterrupted. The daughters, aged 13 and seven, do not go to school. They look after their younger siblings, aged five, three and one, help with household work and also work on farms alongside their parents.

School, anganwadi sabhi door hai aur akele jane mein khatra hai kyun ki durgam vistaar hai (Where we live is a dangerous and inaccessible area. School, Anganwadi are far away)," Bhurabhai says. "We don’t have time from work to drop off children to school and we can’t let them go alone, especially given the unsettling behaviour of some landowners who cast an inappropriate gaze upon our women and daughters.”

You hear such stories when you talk to any of the over 65,000 sharecropping families in Gujarat. Thousands from the Bhil tribal belt migrate to parts of western Gujarat (Saurashtra) to work in sharecropping agriculture. For months, they live on the farmland situated on the outskirts of villages, along with their children. An estimated 50,000 children migrate to Gujarat every year with their parents. While adults in the family work for over 12 hours daily, the children take on unpaid caregiving duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after their siblings.

More often than not, they also end up working in the fields alongside their parents. Unlike children who migrate on their own in search of work and who are therefore subject to state action as child labour, in the case of children who migrate with their families, their engagement in labour remains hidden. These children remain out of school for the entire duration of their migration.

The Central India Bhil Tribal Belt comprising of border areas of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (Marked in dots).

Our recent empirical study conducted by the Centre for Labour Research and Action, a rights-based NGO, sheds light on the ‘access to schooling’ for children of migrant agricultural workers who migrated with their parents to Gujarat. The study, carried out in six destination districts of Saurashtra, covers 1,476 migrant agricultural households that brought their children along with them to the destination sites.

Conducted during the Rabi season, the study notes that more than half (53.7%) of the migrant agricultural workers in Saurashtra come from the tribal regions of Gujarat--mainly Dahod, Panchmahal, Chota Udepur and Mahisagar, while a significant number also come from Madhya Pradesh (42.5%).

Among the 1,476 migrant agricultural households surveyed, 2,844 children aged zero to 14 years migrated along with their parents. The study found that of the 1,985 children of school-going age who accompanied their families, 63% did not attend school in the destination areas.

The dropout ratio recorded for all six destination districts is above 50%, with Amreli being the highest at around 87%. The enrolment rate at the source (native place of migrant workers) was also low--just 44%--highlighting significant barriers for tribal children in accessing schooling. A mere 6% of children under six years of age had access to Anganwadis.

We reached out to the secretary, primary and secondary education, and the director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Gujarat for comment on the findings, and the steps being taken to improve access and bring more children to school. We will update this story when we receive a response.

A bhagiya family working on a farm in Morbi

Reasons for dropping out

Through the survey, we sought to identify the reasons behind the low rate of enrolment of migrant children in schools at the destination. Respondents could select more than one option. Distance from school and language barrier were the most-cited reasons.

Among responses to the survey, 50% of the children who don’t go to school at the destination stated that they have to look after their younger siblings. Other tasks that the children perform include fetching water, livestock care and farm work such as weeding, harvesting and paddy planting.

Parents also expressed concern about the employability of their children back home if they are taught in a non-native language. A girl from Madhya Pradesh’s Alirajpur, who migrated with her family to Rajkot for wage sharecropping, told the team that she finished her grade IX in Alirajpur, but didn’t continue her studies in Rajkot. Her mother explained why: “Bacchi ko Gujarati mein padha ke hamare yaha mein thodi na koi naukri dega (If she learns in Gujarati, who will employ her in Madhya Pradesh?),” adding, “Her educated uncle is not getting a job, what is the point of sending her to school?”

Girls were more likely to cite household responsibilities: Nearly 22% girls said they were unable to attend school due to household chores, compared to 6% boys. Similarly, 17% girls said they had to look after younger siblings, compared to about 9% boys. Further, 24% boys cited a lack of interest in studies, higher than girls (17%).

Kanjibhai Nayka*, a tribal man from Panchmahal district in Gujarat, has been working with his family as a wage sharecropper in Kutch for four seasons now. None of his four children, who have accompanied him, go to school in Kutch. The oldest, a 13-year-old boy, works in the field alongside his parents. Two daughters, a couple of years younger than him, look after the housework and help with the farm work. “Baccho ko padhai mein rakhne se naukri kaha milti hai; ulta bacche kamchor ho jate hai,” says Nayka. (Schooling doesn’t produce jobs, it just makes children slackers).

“One major reason for non-enrolment of migrant children at destination schools is that these children remain invisible to the local school that is responsible for their schooling under the RTE Act," says Sudhir Katiyar, Founder, Centre for Labour Research and Action.

“The RTE provisions make it mandatory that all children under the age of 14 be enrolled in school. These children do not get enumerated in the survey of out-of-school children, which is usually carried out at the beginning of the new academic year by the local school. On the other hand, they continue to be shown as enrolled in the schools at their source villages. Because of the low awareness level about schemes like the Migration Card, the child still enrolled on the school records at the source fails to secure admission at the destination school. And those who successfully get admission to the destination school are often made to repeat the same classes multiple times.

“This can be a reason behind children losing interest in schooling and joining the workforce instead," Katiyar points out. "Upon closer examination in multiple cases, it was found that children's lack of interest in studying also stemmed from the quality of education, which failed to translate into any material gains.”

State neglect?

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, enacted in 2009, was the first Act to explicitly address 'children of migrant workers aged six to fourteen years'. Subsequent years have seen the emergence of additional schemes and initiatives targeting migrant children.

And yet, such a high number of out-of-school migrant children have raised questions about the implementation of the Act and related schemes. For instance, as reported by CLRA’s 2019 study on child labour, the school for the children of Oriya migrant power-loom workers in Surat, started under the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), neither had books in Oriya nor did they have teachers who could speak Oriya, resulting in more dropouts.

A major hurdle in implementing the schemes is funding, experts point out. The total budgeted expenditure of Gujarat in 2023-24 is targeted at Rs 3,01,022 crore, about 18% more than the revised estimates for 2022-23. The state has allocated Rs 36,435 crore--12.1% of its total estimated expenditure--for general education, which is lower than the average allocation (14.8%) by all states.

Continuing the trend over the years, the current budget of the Gujarat government for education stands at a mere 1.42% of its Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP). Data from the Ministry of Education show that around 20,000 positions of primary teachers remain vacant in Gujarat as of July 2023. One of the highest numbers of vacant positions is in the tribal areas of Gujarat, especially Dahod and Banaskantha.

Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, which has several provisions targeted towards migrant children, has been allocated just Rs 1,247 crore--3.5% of Gujarat’s budget for education.

“Schools in hilly tribal areas often remain closed in the absence of teachers," says Kapilaben Nayka, founder of Parivartan Education and Charitable Trust, a collective working on tribal rights in Chhota Udaipur, Gujarat. "The appointed teachers are often expected to conduct multiple classes along with other administrative work, which leaves them overworked. They also lack the skills and capacity to teach the tribal children. It is no surprise that the enrollment in schools is so low in the tribal areas."

Mahender Jethmalani, Programme Director at the Pathey Budget Center, expresses concern regarding the Gujarat government’s investment in social services such as education and health care. “To ensure quality education in schools, conducting teachers' training is crucial, along with investment in school infrastructure. However, the state government has only provisioned Rs 30 crore to train elementary teachers. Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan has several provisions targeted at migrant children, such as Tent Special Training classes, and the provisioning of teachers and learning material in the native language of migrant children. The state, given its economic growth, can afford to allocate greater funds to these initiatives.”

Jethmalani also points out that logistics is yet another issue that goes unaddressed. “Transport arrangements for children staying on farms, increased funding for recruitment and training of teachers, investment in school infrastructure and learning resources in the languages of the sending states can help secure uninterrupted schooling for seasonal migrant children," he says. "Additionally, increasing the funding for Anganwadis and Anganwadi workers will ensure better delivery of services and proper running. In effect, infants will avail benefits under ICDS and their elder siblings won’t have to stay home to look after them, therefore, the budget for education and nutrition should be enhanced with high priority.”

A tribal Bhagiya worker from Dahod tending to her three-month-old child while working on the farm in Rajkot

There have been some instances where the state government and civil society organisations (CSOs) have launched innovative measures to address the barriers faced by migrant children. One such example is Kutch in Gujarat. After the 2002 Gujarat earthquake, the CSOs and the state government joined forces to form Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch--Salt Workers Protection Front. Constant advocacy efforts by the front to ensure that migrant children of salt workers, who live far from schools, receive proper schooling culminated in the government releasing a large number of buses for the children.

“Non-governmental organisations in the sector operate small-scale programmes, while some state governments, in 'sending' states, have set up seasonal residential hostels for the children of workers who migrate, as is the case in Odisha," writes Sajitha Bashir, co-founder of the National Coalition on the Education Emergency. "But in the absence of a systematic policy and adequate funding, there are no large-scale programmes to address this issue.”

Educationists and organisations working with migrant children have been urging the government to build a reliable database of migrant workers and the children accompanying them. “Baal Panchayats provisioned under SSA can be an excellent means of monitoring child migration, since children immediately come to know when their friends and colleagues migrate," says Katiyar. "They can report on impending migration and even help stop it. Targeted interventions are also needed to increase the quality of education. Education is not only a source of livelihood for migrant children but also a tool for upward mobility and breaking out of the cycle of distress migration. Collaborative initiatives between the state and CSOs, including awareness campaigns, database establishment and regular operation of out-of-school support centres can be significant in upholding every child's right to education.”

(All names of agricultural workers have been changed to protect their privacy.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.