The world is reeling from the shock of the COVID-19 epidemic. Even as the entire world is on lockdown, the numbers of the infected continues to grow. This is also true for India. As this is being written, the number of confirmed cases of infection in India has crossed the figure of 1,65,000. We have lost close to 4500 lives to this pandemic which has the world worried.
The major impact of the economic shock due to COVID-19 would be on the poor and the vulnerable. Unfortunately, this also means that children may be one of the worst sufferers of the aftershock.
The impact that COVID-19 and the ill managed lockdowns in India have had on the poor and particularly their young is for the world to see. One cannot forget the image of the exhausted little boy asleep on a suitcase as his mother pulled it across a deserted Agra road on her way from Punjab to Jhansi. Or the video footage of the girl child limping and crying because of injury but trying to keep up with her family as they made their way from Delhi to Kanpur. A recent heartbreaking twitter video from @azizkavish, a journalist with the Amar Ujala newspaper, shows a child at the Muzzafarpur railway station in Bihar, trying to wake up his mother by playing with her, not knowing that she has already passed away.
The story of the 13-year-old Jyoti Kumari who cycled with her injured father as the pillion rider for more than 1100 kilometers, from Gurugram to Darbhanga in Bihar, did capture national attention and resulted in some token praise from politicians and mainly photo ops , but any concrete action to address the problems faced by such children during this pandemic remains to be seen.
The real crisis may be in the making as the poverty resulting from this pandemic may push tens of thousands of vulnerable children into child labour. According to the International Labour Organization, “Already, there are an estimated 152 million children in child labour, 72 million of which are in hazardous work. These children are now at even greater risk of facing circumstances that are even more difficult and working longer hours.” For children who may be orphaned by this pandemic to those who would be forced to drop out of school, to those whose guardians may hand them over to traffickers who often lure with smooth talk about opportunities of education or work, the number of child labourers could multiply.
A full 90% of India’s workforce is part of the informal sector. According to figures released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s (CMIE), the urban unemployment rate has already escalated to 30.9 % because of the impact of this pandemic. The same figure was 8.21% in March 2015. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), as many as 400 million Indians, including migrant workers and daily wage earners, are at risk of being pushed deeper into poverty because of the covid-19 pandemic.
All the above can spell doom for the future of the children whose parents when impacted by the harsh conditions and not having enough reserves or support from the government, may be forced to push their children to work for survival.
Even though India has seen a decrease in child labour in the last two decades, there are still an estimated 1,26,66,377 child labourers in the country. Uttar Pradesh is the state where maximum number of child labourers are found i.e. 19,27,997 or almost 20% of all child labourers in India. The other states where the problem of child labour is rampant are Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
This, in a country that has laws that aims to protect children below 14 years of age from child labour. The Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act was passed in 1986 and was amended in 2016. The amendment was criticized by experts in the field who felt that the child labour act was being diluted. The employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines, and other hazardous employment is prohibited under Article 24 of our Constitution and free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14 is promised by Articles 21A and 45. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) was passed in 2009.
And despite these laws, it is disappointing that the violators of these laws often go scot-free. According to a written reply by the Indian government in February 2019 in the Parliament of India, only 10,826 cases of violation of the Child Labour Act were reported across the country in the preceding four years. Of these, only 56 % cases (6,032) went to the stage of prosecution and only 25 % ended up convicting violators.
One must be careful how to define child labour. Normally, it refers to any activity that can harm children and is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous or interferes with their education by depriving them of the opportunity to attend an educational institution or requires them to combine their education with excessively long and heavy work.
As a result of the lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some newspapers have reported a “reverse trafficking” of child labour in India. As buses and trains have resumed operations but factories remain closed, “traffickers are returning hundreds of children, who they had earlier trafficked to be used as child labour in sweat shops, back to their villages,”
At least 58 children were caught from Madhubani, Bihar and parts of Rajasthan, with fake Aadhaar cards, by authorities and activists. Interestingly, not a single trafficker was arrested. Tragically, none of these rescued children will be eligible for government compensation, as they will not fulfill the technical definition of being bonded labourers. As per the definition only children rescued from their workplaces are entitled to receive state compensation. Unfortunately, once the industries start again, the traffickers would take these children back to the same condition that they were in.
What would the Church do to address such an enormous issue in the post COVID-19 scenario? This is a question that must trouble us and move us to prayer and action. God has called us to, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
While the Church has been intervening to address this issue through many initiatives, it is time that the worldwide Church including the Church in India joins hands in a global effort to eliminate the root causes of child labour and slavery, poverty being the chief cause.
The Church must use her voice to give inputs into policy especially in the fields of education and labour laws so that the future of the children may be protected, and justice and equality would be facilitated. This would be a good goal to strive for in a post COVID-19 world.(Published on 1th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 23)