“Let thy food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates. Food security is a basic right, but not everyone has access to it. In fact, India has one of the highest demographics of children suffering from malnutrition.
Divya Ravindranath, a PhD student, shared her observations on malnutrition among the children of migrant workers at a recent event. She did her fieldwork in the state of Gujarat, but she spoke about the whole of India facing the same problem with children’s nutrition.
Every year, thousands of workers leave their villages and migrate to urban areas to earn a better livelihood. They are engaged especially at construction sites, an industry that is deeply dependent on migrant workers. These workers are generally hired by a complex network of contractors and sub-contractors. Either the contractors go to their own villages to recruit a large number of workers, or the workers migrate on their own and get hired by a contractor.
Basically, there are two types of migrant workers – ones who migrate for a short period of time and are called ‘seasonal migrants’, and the ones who migrate for a long period of time and are called ‘semi-permanent migrants’. NSS data states that there are 1 million migrant children in India today. Day cap provides a safe shelter to the children of the migrant workers by providing them food; would-be mothers also receive counselling on health, nutrition, breastfeeding and a whole range of issues relating to children’s health. They also receive infrastructural support by the builders in terms of water, toilet facilities, etc. But the condition of female workers at some sites remains deplorable. Some pregnant women often are forced to work up till the 7th or 8th month of pregnancy. They have to constantly fight the discomfort of breastfeeding their babies in front of the contractors as physical harassment is rampant in this field.
Often, these construction sites are built on the periphery of towns, which means markets from where to source fresh food are located far-off. So, the workers end up depending on packaged food from supermarkets which are not only costly but also have low nutritional value. As a result, the morbidity of malnutrition among their kids is alarmingly high.
Though a Maternity Benefit Scheme by the Government of India exists, it extends its benefits only for the first two children of a woman who has no intention of any more children. This Maternity Benefit Scheme has many conditions attached to it, like the one that states that the beneficiary woman should be able to afford maternal care checkups. For migrant women, this is not possible every time. If they happen to migrate to another state, the government of that state often refuses to pay for them. The policy thus falls flat.
Changes in policies need to be made. “Only then can we hope for better conditions for the workers and their children,” says Divya.