Mumbai: A fire from a cylinder blast ravaged a Mumbai construction site in February, destroying more than 100 temporary shelters for workers.
But there was not a single casualty: the labourers were at work and their children were safely taken care of at the mobile crèche on the site.
Learning ground: Children of construction workers being taught drawing and colouring by a caretaker at a Mobile Creches’ facility in Mumbai
As construction changes the landscape of cities and towns across India, young children running around sites where such work is in progress have become as common a sight as the stacks of bricks and cement. Apart from endangering their own lives, they also divert the attention of their parents from the labour-intensive work at the site.
“We noticed that despite restrictions, most women labourers brought their children to the site, since there was nobody else to take care of them. This posed a big risk for us,” says N.A. Kudale, deputy executive of BG Shirke Construction Technology Pvt. Ltd.
In 2004, the company decided to contract the services of a mobile crèche for the 100-odd kids at its work site in Versova, near Andheri. This has thus helped minimize the risk from freak incidents, such as fires or construction-related mishaps.
Many builders are today coming forward to promote such childcare facilities at their construction sites, citing benefits such as greater productivity of the workers and safety of the children.
“The workers are able to concentrate better with their children in safe hands, thus resulting in an increase in their productivity. Besides, such initiatives send out a positive image of us being labourer-friendly,” says Abhisheck Lodha, director, Lodha Group. The group has a crèche at its construction site in Thane (near Mumbai), with about 60 children. “We are now planning to extend mobile crèche facilities to our other sites in Lower Parel and Kanjurmarg,” Lodha adds (Lower Parel is in the south Mumbai region and Kanjurmarg is an eastern suburb of the city).
The booming construction industry in India, second only to agriculture in terms of employment, is estimated to be growing at 15% per year. It currently employs 35-40 million people who have, by conservative estimates, 50-60 million children. Though the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, mandates crèches at all large construction sites with at least 50 women, this has not been implemented in all states.
Not-for-profit organizations such as Mobile Crèches (MC), which operates in Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune, are engaged in the care and education of children at building construction sites.
“Today with 18 centres across Mumbai, we reach out to about 4,000 children aged between 0 and 14,” says Devika Mahadevan, chief executive, Mumbai Mobile Crèches (MMC). “As soon as we hear of a new construction project, we approach the builder and persuade them to allow us to set up a crèche at the building premises,” she says.
MC negotiates with the builders to wholly or partly finance such childcare facilities at their work site. “The financial assistance differs with some contributing about 20% and some others helping out with 80% of the expenses incurred,” says Mridula Bajaj, director of Delhi Mobile Crèches (apart from corporate and individual donations, MC is also funded by the government’s Rajiv Gandhi Crèche Scheme).
The Delhi chapter of MC has about 20 centres in the NCR region (this includes Faridabad and Gurgaon in Haryana, and Noida and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh). Though we have about 1,500 children at our centres, there are almost 400,000 children out there on construction sites in the NCR area alone,” she adds.
The mobile crèches offer a three-tier service—a crèche for toddlers, a balwadi (nursery) for children between the ages of 3 and 6 and non-formal primary education for children above 6. The kids are dropped off at the centre by their parents at 9.30am. They are then fed and taken care of by the caretakers till the return of their parents at about 5 in the evening.
Since most labourers linger on in a place for a minimum of two years, their children are enrolled in municipal schools after being trained at the mobile crèche. Most children who manage to continue with school and complete their studies graduate to a higher economic strata and become part of mainstream economic life, pursuing diverse careers.
Dashrath, 25, is a lawyer today. He was spotted by a team from MMC at the age of 6, while working at a tea stall near a construction site for Rs5 a day. “I was dragged to school, but that initiative of MMC changed my life forever,” he says. His two-year association with MMC went a long way in inspiring him to continue studies despite all odds.
For 13-year-old Swati Tilak and Akshay Kadam, 12, the most memorable part of their three day visit to Hong Kong was the hotel where they stayed. “Our bedroom was very large and it housed a refrigerator and a television,” gushes Swati. These youngsters, who are children of migrant construction workers in Mumbai, were in Hong Kong in April this year, to collect prizes won at an international competition on wetland conservation.
When asked what they want to do, Swati says that she aspires to become an engineer, while Akshay smiles coyly, his little mind jostling between various options.
“We aim to reach out to 10,000 children by the year 2010 and this is possible only with the assistance of governing bodies like the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI),” says Mahadevan. In April this year, a team of delegates comprising government and business leaders from the UK had visited MMC to provide strategic advice and support for the latter’s work.
“We held talks with the municipal commissioner of Mumbai, Jairaj Phatak, and the president of MCHI, Pravin Dhoshi, for facilitating information regarding new construction sites in the city to MMC,” says Mandie Campbell, director of leadership for the British Home Office. “We hope that this will enable them to reach out to a larger number of children at a faster pace and also guarantee the cooperation of the builders,” she adds.