Minors fall prey to exploiters as the pandemic pushes people to the margins

By Vedanta Agarwal

Lucknow: Informally employed in a factory, 13 year old school dropout Diwakar’s voice is unheard as he desperately asks for a pair of protective eyeglasses amidst the rasping sound created by the metals that he is welding with a naked eye.

The contractors of this small metal factory, situated in the outskirts of the city, sit comfortably with their dark glasses on and instruct the meek little boy to perform the task appropriately. The boy originally belongs to a small village named Baswada located near the capital city. His parents were both working at a construction site in Delhi. Diwakar’s family was one of the 40 lakh migrants who were forced to return to their native villages in UP due to the lockdown.Currently his parents work on contract farming and they sent him off to the factory in the city through the same contractor. He happened to be a local agent for the owner of the factory who promised the parents that the child would be given education and a stipulated sum of money. 

The UP government has recorded an increase in the number of child trafficking cases registered in the state during the pandemic. Syed Rizwan Ali, State Nodal Officer, Department of Child and Bonded Labour, said that the government is worried about a further rise in child exploitation cases in the post-lockdown period when restrictions on schools and colleges are being lifted. 

“I have been working here for a year and a half and my training period is still on,” says the boy who fearfully looks at the contractor on being asked about his background. He is burdened with all the work that involves risk in the garb of ‘training’ as a labourer. He says that it was important for him to contribute to the household income. “The parents have sent him willingly because schools are shut,” says the owner of the factory. 

According to a UNICEF report titled ‘COVID-19 and Child Labour- A Time of Crisis, A Time to Act’, as many as 1.6 billion students have been globally affected by school closures owing to the pandemic. This has been a major reason for the rampant increase in child labour across the globe. Economic hardships due to loss of jobs have resulted in greater expectations from children to contribute to household income. 

The report calls child labour a form of ‘survival strategy’ in times of the pandemic. It has been observed that in most cases parents are willingly sending their child for labour where they become potential victims of trafficking and exploitation. For financially strained families, child labour is a desperate resort to reduce the burden on the family. The report observes that the pandemic has also prompted growth in informal employment making children defenceless against child labour. 

Child rights activists from the state have argued that forced migration has made a large number of people live on the margins. According to Ministry of Labour and Employment data, Uttar Pradesh saw 34.2 lakh migrants return home during the pandemic, 20% of whom were children. Experts say that returning migrants bring home new resources, know-how and connections, and hence local labour opportunities increase for children. 

Mansoor Qadri, Field Officer, UNICEF UP,  says that children have become easy prey for exploiters during the pandemic because of three broad reasons. With schools shut and family members losing their jobs, there is an obvious burden of labour on the child. Secondly, there is an aspiration to work amongst the adolescents who have dropped out of school and hence they are constantly on the move where they can easily be lured for labour. Furthermore, the restrictions on travel by rail have forced migrants to turn to buses as the routine mode of transportation. This makes the recognition of vulnerable families easier for local traffickers. They subsequently take advantage of the financial helplessness that families are caught in.

As stated by women and child abuse helpline-1090 of the UP Police, a nexus of traffickers and agents has emerged in the pandemic. On raiding factories and following up complaints of child labour, it is found that local agents have been deployed to identify families that have been further pushed to the margins by the pandemic. These agents lure the financially parents by offering them an advance sum of Rs 2-5000 and make false promises of jobs and education for their children. These agents put them in touch with a middleman who arranges transportation for the children who are taken in buses, trains and lorries mostly to Punjab and Harayana. The nexus is controlled by a contractor who employs the children in hazardous factories where children work in exploitative conditions for 12-18 hours and are paid a bare minimum sum of money.

Talking about the performance of UP Police, Qadri says that anti-trafficking squads have been set up in 75 districts of the state. However, he points out that the data available with the police is not promising. “There are very few indicators in terms of complaints registered or children rescued,” he adds.  

Sangita Sharma, Director, Childline UP, says that recently the NGO was able to rescue 16 children who were being taken to Punjab by five traffickers. They were put in shelter homes and their parents were subsequently called. It was found out that all the children belonged to the Purnia district of Bihar. Talking about legal provisions available for victims of child abuse, she says that POCSO makes reporting of such forms of violation mandatory. She, however,  remarks that parents of victims are themselves reluctant in reporting these cases. She says that something transpires between the police and the families that dissuades them from filing a complaint. “Red Tapism, corruption and sadist mentality of clerical officers, and lack of their proper monitoring is responsible for the fact that not even 50% of relief reaches the victims,” she adds. 

Amar, all of seven, helps his father in carrying a huge sack of onions which is triple the weight of the cachexic, malnourished boy. He says that his family is taking advantage of the ‘vacation’ that he has got from his school by asking him to sell fruits and vegetables. 

The state wing of UNICEF says that due to the absence of formal and informal credit during pandemic, parents are forced to fall back on bonded child labour. Further, they state that children kept out of school due to the pandemic are sucked into ‘family trade’. Family businesses like bangle making, beedi making, zardozi, and tanning are as dangerous as other forms of bonded labour. Qadri says that in UP and Bihar, either the children are locally employed in agriculture based works or they are sent off to far off places. “The employment of children in hazardous jobs has increased manifold during the pandemic,” he observes. 

Dr. Vijaya Mohan, President, Lucknow Neonatology Foundation, says that risks have compounded for children during the pandemic. “Parental morbidity is one of the main reasons for increased child labour during the pandemic,” she adds. The UNICEF report says that areas where health systems are under resourced and social protection mechanisms like schools lacking, families are likely to be exposed to severe health shocks. It notes that since the perception is that children are less susceptible to the coronavirus, they are saddled with the responsibility of taking care of infected parents. 

Also a former member of the state Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Sangita Sharma states that the pandemic has not only increased the number of child exploitation cases but also their complexity. She says that her NGO received numerous complaints of child abuse and violation within households. She attributed this to mounting depression and frustration of parents due to economic pressure and loss of jobs. Childline also received complaints of young adolescents aged 14-15 molesting infants and smaller children within the house. “With online teaching becoming a norm, every young adolescent has a smartphone and is exposed to sexually explicit content at a very young age,” says Sharma, citing online learning as a reason for increased child abuse within homes. 

Human rights activists note that guaranteeing access to credit, creation of decent jobs for adults, protection of health and safety of workers and sharpening the evidence of child trafficking in the pandemic are some measures that the government must take to deal with the setbacks received in the fight against child labour during the pandemic.