The COVID-19 pandemic has cause havoc in all sections of Indian society, no one has suffered worse than its children.
In the space of 7 months, the country has been set back decades in the fight against child labour, child trafficking and child marriage. The lockdown and the economic collapse that followed created a perfect storm of poverty and exploitation.
Schools are not only vital for education but act as an essential surveillance mechanism to ensure that children are kept out of the hands of child traffickers. It also monitors that children are not pushed into arranged underage marriages. Schools have been closed since March.
Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan movement which rescues trafficked children, said that between April and September, it had rescued over 1,200 children who were being trafficked illegally to work in factories or farms. This huge spike was unlike anything he had seen before. The children were usually aged between eight and 18, though some were as young as six. Their average salary was usually 1,000 rupees per month.
The Law and How COVID-19 pandemic affected
In India all child labour is illegal for children under the age of 14, with a few minor exceptions. Children between 14 and 18 children are banned from any work that is “hazardous” or will affect their development.
Tingal recounted a recent rescue operation on 6 October where raids were carried out on several roadside dhabas, and automobile workshops in north Delhi. They rescued 12 boys, the youngest of whom was eight, who had been trafficked from neighbouring states to work. Before the pandemic, several of the boys had been attending school.
Prabhat Kumar, deputy director of child protection for Save the Children India said,
“Over the past six months, child labour and child marriage have become coping mechanisms for families who have fallen into debt and poverty during the pandemic, At the same time, demand for cheap child labour has risen enormously.”
When a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed on India at just four hours’ notice, the devastating impact on its hundreds of millions of migrant workers – who were left stranded hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away from home without any means of making money – was well documented. Less visible in this humanitarian crisis were the tens of millions of children who had been trafficked from their villages to work in garment and jewellery factories, sweatshops and car workshops in urban centres such as Delhi and Jaipur, who also found themselves stranded.