On March 24 when India went into a total lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus, thousands of migrant labourers across the country lost their source of livelihood. Now that the lockdown is over and economic activities have sporadically started with several states across India diluting labour laws, children seem to be at the highest risk.
As per a new report by the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation, as many as 21 percent of households across India are potentially ready to send their children into child labour due to their increased economic vulnerability. It also found that the lockdown increased the risk of trafficking of children as well.
The report, titled, "A Study on Impact of Lockdown and Economic Disruption on Low-Income Households with Special Reference to Children", surveyed nearly 250 households from trafficking states along with over 50 NGOs.
As per its findings, 89 percent of NGOs that were surveyed felt that there is a very high likelihood of an increase in trafficking of both adults and children in the post-lockdown period for the purpose of labour. As many as 76 percent of the NGOs anticipated human trafficking for the purpose of sexual abuse and child trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation' to see an upsurge post the lockdown.
Speaking to News18, Purujit Praharaj who led the study said that the pandemic had completely destroyed the rural economy and government measures to help rural households need to focus on more than just distribution of ration through the Public Distribution System. "Even if a rural household manages to get rations, they still need an income for things like rent, electricity, gas," Praharaj said adding that the post lockdown period will definitely see an uptick in cases of child labour and trafficking.
"The dilution of labour laws in several states means workers will be made to put in longer hours at minimum wage. This will further push children into work," Praharaj said.
"The increase in cases of trafficking was confirmed by M Rammohan who works with an anti-trafficking NGO in Andhra Pradesh called Help. The lockdown forced migrant labourers back to their home states and now they are unwilling to go back," Rammohan told News18. This has created a wide chasm between the availability of jobs in rural areas and the number of job seekers. "Governments at both state and central level need to figure out how to increase jobs in MNREGA and also provide other skill-based training at rural levels for alternate employment," he said.
At present, as per Census 2011 data, as many as 10.1 million children in the age group of 5-14 years are employed as main or marginal workers, a majority of them in cities. Closure of factories due to coronavirus has led to reverse migration which means thousands of trafficked children are being sent back home. Rammohan feels that this undocumented reverse migration makes the children even more vulnerable for further exploitation.
He also pointed out that due to the lockdown, several states such as AP and Telangana had shut down shelter homes for rescued children who had been saved from trafficking. "This means that the children are being sent back to their homes where they were trafficked from in the first place, making them even more vulnerable to trafficking and trauma," Rammohan said.
Manisha Tokale, who has been working with an organisation called 'Jagar Pratishthan' as well as CIP at the grassroots level in Maharashtra's Beed district to uplift the condition of women and children, told News18 that the number of child marriages had also increased. "Due to the lockdown, child protection services at the district and block level have been hampered. With more mouths to feed, many poor families are opting to marry off their girl children or traffic them".
As per Praharaj who led the KSCF study, the only way to prevent such negative impacts of the lockdown on children was by improving the village economy and increasing scrutiny at the block level.
"To save the children, we must focus on providing income to the adults," Praharaj said. And when trafficking is concerned, Praharaj felt that states should implement strict surveillance measures at the village and district level by maintaining records of each and every child in a village and keeping a check on who is leaving or entering the village and why.