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A home away from home

Feb 11, 2009

The concept of mobile creches for children of construction workers has begun to yield rich dividends in Pune, a city in western India. Catering to more than a thousand underprivileged children, these day-care centres provide an informal learning atmosphere to meet their emotional and social development needs.

Pune, Maharashtra: Nothing speaks better than success. And that is precisely the case with 19-year-old Anjana Damraji who is currently a first year student of a degree course in science. She stays in Pune in a girl’s hostel, manages to pay her fees through a government scholarship and also provides tuitions to five children during her spare hours to earn an extra bit of money.

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Nothing of this would seem extraordinary had it not been for the fact that Anjana’s parents work on a construction site as labourers and have been doing so for the past 24 years.

Ask her as to what she wants to do in the coming years and Anjana presents a clear picture. “I will do a course in computer technology and find a job. I want my parents to retire now,” she states.

And what about marriage? “That,” she says, “can wait.” In fact, to be able to continue her education, Anjana had to hide the fact that she had reached puberty from her mother for a long time. “Or else my parents would have immediately tried to get me married,” she says.

When her parents did find out and were not too keen on her studying any further, moral support came from the creche which Anjana used to go to as a child. “Nirmala didi (Nirmala Hiremath) who heads the creche convinced my parents that I should stay in a hostel and continue studying.

Changing lives

This creche has changed the lives and fortunes of many children of construction site labourers,” Anjana states.

Another story is that of Ravinder Kadam who has recently found a job with a BPO and hopes to acquire a post-graduation in commerce. “I would have become a labourer like my father had it not been for the mobile creche where I went as a child. I got interested in learning new things and became desperate to be able to speak and write in English. Therefore, despite my father’s opposition, I continued to study. I am now planning to invest in a house so that we don’t have to live on construction sites any longer,” he states.

There are many such people today who have been able to carve out a future for themselves, credit for which must go to Meera Mahadevan who first conceptualised the idea of mobile creches in 1969.

Now, 40 years down the line, Tara Mobile Creches has taken roots in many cities across India. In Pune, it has 15 centres and caters to the needs of 1,300 children. It was the sight of a baby lying unattended at a construction site in the hot sun that galvanised Mahadevan into starting a creche for them.

Today, for any big construction project that comes up, Tara Mobile Creches (TMC) comes in as the care provider. The builders arrange for a place on the site, and TMC provides well-trained, committed staff. From the age of two months onwards, children have to be left with the creche workers. Initially the staff has to sometimes round up the children.

“Today, builders are more aware and willing to give about 40% of the money spent on each child in the creche on their site”

“Eventually they love to come here. The older ones are not burdened with sibling care and the younger ones are not neglected,” says Nirmala Hiremath who has been with Tara Mobile Creches for over 17 years and is now in charge of it.

“When we started almost 30 years ago in Pune, we considered ourselves lucky if builders spared us a bit of parking space with some sack partitions around it. There was no running water and things like toilets for staff were unheard of in the early nineties,” Hiremath recalls.

“Today, things are very much better. Builders are more aware and willing to give about 40% of the money spent on each child in the creche on their site,” she adds.

Holistic care

Incidentally, taking care of children brings with a wide range of responsibilities that include battling blind beliefs, superstition, alcoholism, illiteracy, gender biases, and even contraception and HIV even before they even can begin to make a difference to the lives of the children.

“We have to begin with the very basics such as personal hygiene. Once they learn all this it is heart-warming to see young children teaching this to their parents”

The pre-schoolers are taught the basics and then from age six onwards they are encouraged to go to formal schools even as they continue getting the support they need at the creche. Formal schooling is one of the biggest issues given the transient and nomadic nature of these families.

“Teaching the child often involves teaching the parents first,” Hiremath affirms. “We have to begin with the very basics such as personal hygiene. Simple habits like washing hands before food and after a visit to the toilet have to be repeatedly dinned into the children. Once they learn all this it is heart-warming to see young children teaching this to their parents. The simple act of washing hands helps raise the health standards and reduce common illness like diarrhoea, colds and stomach ailments,” avers Dr Nisha Munshi, a board member, who has been with TMC for about 20 years.

Interestingly, many among these children come back to provide inputs to TMC. Malinath Shinge, for example, spent his childhood with Tara and then after qualifying as a teacher, chose to come back and work with Tara.

“It is important to spread the message that knowledge is the ultimate power,” says this soft-spoken but extremely confident educator.

As one of the committee members puts it, “The trick is to understand that every child has the potential to shine. All they need is a little boost from the adults and they will carve their own space. That is what Tara Mobile Creches is all about – giving a fighting chance to the child who otherwise may have none.”

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