A radical experiment succeeds. Mobile day-care centers aid India's poorest working women

Her name is Soni, but building contractors call her ``casual labor.'' Today, as the afternoon sun pushes temperatures at the site of the new Italian Embassy into the mid-90s, she strains visibly under the weight of the wet concrete she carries in a tin tray balanced precariously on her head.

Soni, who is paid 14 rupees (about $1.07) a day, falls into what government statisticians commonly refer to as the ``unorganized sector'' of India's labor force. It comprises all those who work outside the factories and mines, mainly in agriculture and construction, and accounts for nearly 90 percent of all the women who work in India. As such, they enjoy neither the job security nor social benefits normally associated with regular employment.

``These women,'' says sociologist Mina Swaminathan, ``are among the neediest in India.''

At the Italian Embassy construction site, Mobile Cr`eches, an organization known for its pioneering work in aiding India's poorest working women, has just opened its newest day-care center for children up to the age of 12 to help ``ease the burden,'' as one volunteer put it, of Soni and her fellow day-laborers.

``The child is the primary focus [of the center],'' says Manju Vaish, who has worked with the organization for the past five years. ``But we're also obviously concerned about the mother, who is often a harassed homemaker living in a hovel with none of the basic amenities like clean drinking water and proper sewerage facilties. Our staff is trained to educate women in matters of hygiene, nutrition, and other aspects of child care and family management. The working woman in India, especially the poor, has no respite. By caring for her children, we hope to ease her burden.''

Under Indian law, companies employing at least 20 women are required to provide adequate on-site day-care facilities for children.

``But few do,'' says Kali Vahra, a Mobile Cr`eches official. ``They build board rooms instead.''

Mobile Cr`eches was founded in 1969 by Meera Mahadevan, a homemaker and writer, shortly after she saw the children of construction workers playing in the mud at a building site in New Delhi. Her first task, she believed, was to provide shelter for the children, to protect them from the elements. So she erected her first cr`eche.

``She began with a tent, a handful of well-intentioned volunteers, no theories, no money, and unswerving determination,'' says Mrs. Swaminathan, who wrote the definitive study of day-care facilities in India, ``Who Cares?''

The organization grew rapidly over the years with help from a constant stream of dedicated volunteers and funding from the government, national and international charity agencies, and individuals.

In the past 18 years, Mobile Cr`eches has opened 162 day-care centers throughout India, moving - as its name suggests - from one construction site to the next as the need arises.

``Each center,'' says Vaish, ``exists only as long as construction lasts.''

Today, the organization runs about 50 centers at a time (21 in Delhi), serving about 4,000 children on any given day of the week (1,500 to 1,800 in Delhi). It was the first experiment of its kind in India, according to Swaminathan, and it is still believed to be unique in the third world.

The success of Mobile Cr`eches inspired other voluntary agencies to provide similar services. By 1974, 10 agencies were running 247 day-care centers roughly modeled after Mrs. Mahadevan's example. Today, some 1,500 agencies operate about 8,000 centers, serving a total of nearly 200,000 children.

``Mobile Cr`eches has had an impact out of all proportion to its size,'' says Swaminathan. ``It was so radically different, so imaginative, and so compelling that it quickly attracted attention throughout India, even worldwide.''

``We hope to continue to grow,'' says Vaish. Adds Soni, cuddling her two-year-old son: ``It's given my boy some hope.''

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