Over 70 children were crammed into a bus, heading from Bihar to a sweatshop in the Indian city of Rajasthan, when the authorities pulled it over. Among the faces half hidden behind colourful masks was 12-year-old Deepak Kumar.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Kumar had been enrolled in grade four at the school in his small district of Gaya in the impoverished Indian state of Bihar. But when Covid-19 hit and the country went into lockdown, the school gates shut across India and have not opened since. With his parents, both daily wage labourers, unable to make money and put food on the table, last month Kumar was sent out to find work.
“During lockdown, my parents had no jobs, and after lockdown, my parents had no money to arrange food for us,” said Kumar, the eldest of seven. “My entire family somehow survived on one meagre meal. Most of the time, I either slept with a half or completely empty stomach. So, I joined a group going out for work. I thought, ‘If I work, I will get money and at least eat good food.’” His home district of Gaya is now thought to have around 80,000 children working as labourers.
Deepak’s father, Ramashraya Manjhi, 50, a daily wage farm labourer, said he allowed his 12-year-old son to go out to work to save the whole family from starvation.
“I would get 2kg of grains a day for working in the field, but after lockdown, all food ran out at home,” said Manjhi. “I had nothing to serve my seven children to eat, so I asked my eldest child to go out for work. My son too said if he worked he would get food and would also provide the same to us.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked devastation on India, no one has suffered worse than its children. In the space of seven months, the country has been set back decades in the fight against child labour, child trafficking and child marriage, with the lockdown and the economic collapse that followed creating a perfect storm of poverty and exploitation. Schools, which 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 and not pushed into arranged underage marriages, 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, a spike 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 (£10.50) per month, around 40p per day.
In India all child labour is illegal for children under the age of 14, with a few minor exceptions, and 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 restaurants, known as 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.
“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,” said Prabhat Kumar, deputy director of child protection for Save the Children India. “At the same time, demand for cheap child labour has risen enormously.”
Kumar added: “Our experience is that once a child has started working and earned even a small level of money, then they are unlikely to go back to school. What follows then is a cycle of poverty and vulnerability and exploitation. These children work for 16 hours on less than minimum wage, and they often develop very serious health issues.”
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.
They returned to their villages in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand in droves, but the fates that awaited them there were little better. Many of their parents were daily wage labourers who had no way to earn money, and now had more mouths to feed. Many families took expensive loans from the unregulated moneylenders, falling deeper into debt.
When lockdown began to lift in June and factories reopened, work for adult daily-wage workers still proved hard to come by. Industry, keen to make up for three months of losses, sent recruiters out to rural villages looking for the cheapest labour possible: children. With impoverished families deep in debt, and their children not in school, many agreed to send their sons and daughters to work in garment factories, bangle-making sweatshops, farms and restaurants.
“After lockdown the traffickers refused to hire the adults for work. They told the families they would only hire the children, so the families felt they had no choice,” said Tingal. “What the families don’t know is how difficult it is for the children to come back once they board a bus to those sweatshops in big cities.”
Villages in the state of Bihar, one of the poorest in India, which is estimated to have over 1 million children in labour, have been a particular target for labour recruiters and traffickers. “We have rescued around 300 children from the clutches of human traffickers in the past few weeks. Seventy-five of them were rescued from a bus carrying them outside Bihar, while 200 were rescued from various states,” said Bihar social welfare department director Raj Kumar.
Suresh Kumar of the Human Liberty Network, a group of NGOs working to stop child trafficking said: “We are shocked to see little children boarding buses to work as labourers in factories to eke out livelihoods for their families. We have intercepted seven buses so far.”
Ratna Sanjay Katiyar, Bihar’s inspector general of police, said they were “alert” to the problem and had forces keeping vigil at railway and bus stations to intercept trafficked children.
The pandemic has also scuppered the community mechanisms in place to prevent child marriage in states such as Rajasthan. India has the third highest number of child marriages globally, and a recent report by Save the Children estimated that 200,000 more children in South Asia would be forced into marriage this year due to circumstances linked to Covid-19.
Kriti Bharti, founder of the Saarthi Trust, which works to prevent and annul child marriage in Rajasthan, usually relies on a network on informers in villages to halt child marriages, but said the lockdown and virus restrictions had rendered it useless.
“Child marriages have gone up sharply because villagers realised that no one was watching any more, that government and law enforcement was preoccupied with Covid-19, so they saw this as an opportunity to arrange for their daughters to get married,” Bharti said mournfully.
Just over a month ago, in a small village in the district of Dholpur, three girls, between the ages of 13 and 16, were quietly married off to older men from another state. The ceremony, said a neighbour, had happened without much fuss. “It is our tradition. It protects the girls,” said the neighbour. “The family knew that the police would not come – they are too busy because of all this Covid.”
Read the original article at The Guardian