The construction site on the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering and Technology (Cipet) campus in Guindy Industrial Estate in Chennai is slushy. Yet this is perhaps the best place that Appar Swamy, 28, and Kala Vathy, 23, a migrant couple from Parvathypuram in Andhra Pradesh have worked in since they moved to Chennai two and a half years back. “We have so far worked only in Oragadam, plenty of construction going on there," Appar Swamy tells me in broken Tamil.

Education plus: Revathy teaching in a makeshift school at a construction site. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Bhagya Lakshmi, the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, has been quick to pick up the language and chats fluently with me. “I cook rice and kuzhambu (gravy) for my parents for lunch after they have left for work, before I start school," she says. Just a year back, her routine was very different.

“Apart from cooking, she would be helping her mother at the construction site too with light jobs like sieving sand or, worse still, she wouldn’t have anything to do and be cooped up at her shed," says Raja Fernando, coordinator for the migrant workers project of Aide et Action, a French NGO, working with migrants from Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh on construction sites and brick kilns in Chennai.

“It was at one such construction site in Oragadam that we met her and her parents," Fernando says. “She was picking out stones from the fine sand that her mother would carry on her head to lay floors or grind in a concrete mixer." Now, Bhagya Lakshmi spends her mornings and afternoons learning English, her mother tongue Telugu, and some math and science at an “alternative education centre" set up by Aide et Action right next to the building in the making.

The centre is really an asbestos shack that heats the room till the 20-odd children of assorted ages seated on the floor are perspiring. Puffing and panting in the stifling room, cloaked in the heavy humid air, S. Revathy, their teacher, trudges on with a lesson on multiplication tables.

Revathy used to work with a children’s home before she was trained by Aide et Action for this job. “I teach them most of the subjects in Telugu, but make sure they learn English as well. But they are better in things like drawing and painting, carpentry, cooking and even trade and commerce!" she says. She encourages these activities because she’s not sure that disciplining them towards bookish learning alone would help them in the longer run. They’ll have to survive in the real world later, after all, she reasons.

Aide et Action runs 12 such alternative education centres on construction sites, 10 of them in the Sriperumbudur industrial corridor and two in other parts of the city. It has trained, full-time teachers. “Problem is, we are not able to progress beyond children of ages 13 or 14. If they have to take VIII or X standard Board exams, they need a migration certificate from their state government or they need to have a domicile certificate in this state," Fernando says. They have neither; their affairs are pretty much run by a construction agent who brings them and their parents here and moves them at will, depending on where the next assignment comes up.

“For the mistry (construction agent), our centres become an education component that he can market along with his usual package," Fernando says. “So he encourages it. He’s quite benevolent, really."

The questions that neither Bhagya Lakshmi’s parents nor her teachers or the NGO want to answer is what they will do once she outgrows their alternative school.