Mumbai Mobile Creches gives kids of migrant construction workers food, shelter and a chance to learn
It’s a common sight in Mumbai. Towering structures covered by scaffolding and swarming with workers, lifting, pounding, carrying, building. This skyscraper, located on a large tract of what used to be mill land in Agripada, is no different. But down a paved path, past the soon-to-be prime realty space, bordering the shanties that the migrant construction workers temporarily call home, is the nondescript dusty setting for a remarkable venture.
A cluster of rooms covered by asbestos sheets, spotlessly clean, festooned with colourful paintings and craftwork, and bursting with the sound of children’s voices – this is a daycare centre and school for the children of the construction workers who work on this site. Till the building is done, the workers will live here and their children will get a shot at an education.
This is the vision and reality of the Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC), a 40-year-old organisation that works with children up to the age of 14. MMC has a straightforward, well-tested strategy: When a new construction site comes up, MMC has the construction company build rooms on the site. While the parents are at work all day, the children come to the centre, where they get food, shelter and, most importantly, learning. It’s a healthy alternative to running wild around all that dangerous construction material.
Each centre has a crèche (for kids up to the age of 3 years), a balwadi or daycare centre (ages 3 to 5 years) and classrooms (ages 5 to 14 years). With the babies, activities are geared towards cognitive development, with games and songs. The pre-schoolers are taught colours, numbers, alphabets, etc through fun and interactive learning. In the case of the primary school students, the attempt is to get them up to speed or supplement their education so they can eventually try to join the mainstream.
The biggest challenge lies in the fact that the kids are all from migrant families and so it’s never certain how long they will remain at a centre; some stay for years, others leave in months. Also, when construction is finished, the workers move on and the organisation closes down the centre.
MMC has 26 centres across Mumbai and a network of 150-170 teachers and helpers, often products of MMC themselves. Each centre is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm. According to the NGO’s 2008-09 annual report, they reached over 5,500 children. The daily drill is often enlivened by interactive sessions like this one (left), where a group of volunteers talked to the students about water – its usage, properties, conservation and more.
The effectiveness of the MMC programme depends largely on people like Vaishali Choudhary (seen in this photo playing with the kids). A coordinator at the Agripada centre, Vaishali has worked with MMC for 33 years, evident in the easy and efficient way in which she handles the children. “I joined the organisation in 1976, even before I was married, along with some friends,” she says. “I didn’t know anything. At that time, a few construction sites had come up.”
Vaishali has worked at various centres over the years, moving as and when they have opened and shut. She has worked at the Agripdada crèche for nearly two years. “Earlier the workers were reluctant to send their children to us. The kids used to cry, show up dirty, we would have to clean and change them,” she says. “Now, they come on their own, happy and clean.”
Vaishali talks with pride of all the kids she’s seen going off to municipal schools after stints at MMC. “Many have given their Std X and XII exams after studying in primary classes here.” She beams, “There’s even Ramachandra sir, who teaches primary children at one of our centres. He himself was a student here.”
CEO Vrishali Pispati, talks about her vision for Mumbai Mobile Crèches and driving change in the world around us:
How did you end up here?
My association with Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC) started as a volunteer over two years ago. I started by helping the Preschool Education Coordinator create her monthly curriculum and teaching aids. Soon, because of my background in finance and economics, and my interest in working full-time, I joined MMC as their general manager. With a year’s multi-disciplinary experience of finance, operations and administration, I have now been appointed as CEO from March 2010.
What are the surprises you have encountered?
The challenges of so much multi-tasking required of any position in MMC was a surprise – but is also why I find it so very enjoyable and exciting!
What are your goals for the organisation?
My immediate goal for MMC is to reach over 8000 children by the end of 2010-11 and the eventual goal is to ensure every child on every construction site is safe, healthy and educated.
What have been the setbacks, and what has helped?
We work in an environment where government policies (and there are a fair number for these children) are not implemented, and builders are yet to buy into the ideas of Corporate Social Responsibility. However, we have over 40 years of experience in this field and are well recognised in the child rights space. Moreover, our teachers have been with us for over 20 years! With very high levels of commitment, what makes this a very special organisation, is the sense of teamwork. I think this is one of our core strengths.
What are your happiest moments?
Our centres are located on dangerous construction sites which have cement mixers, trucks and heavy mechanical equipment moving around. Amidst this chaos and dust-filled environment, our centres are a little haven.
When I step into a centre and see little babies gurgling and smiling happily, and older children engrossed in learning and playing games, I am overwhelmed by the importance of this work and immensely humbled to be part of an organisation that is making such a difference to the lives of the most invisible and vulnerable children of India.
Another thing I am very proud of is that 30 percent of our teachers are women from the construction site who are now role models in their community.
What has been your biggest learning?
I have learnt that the ideal way to resolve problems and tackle tough issues in the face of multi-disciplinary and multi-level challenges is by understanding the situation at the ground level, initiating dialogues and maintaining excellent communication within as well as outside the organisation.
What is needed to drive change in India?
Every citizen owning responsibility for his actions and his surroundings would be the very first step. Initiative, willingness to face difficult situations, ability to not remain a silent spectator but be a willing participant of the democratic process will join India with Bharat. Slowly but surely things are changing, but the pace is too slow and the divide too deep.
– Mumbai Action team