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No Safe Haven: Children in Rural India May be at Risk of Trafficking due to COVID-19 Crisis

By: Chandan Nandy


Last Updated: April 09, 2020, 15:10 IST

(Representative Image: Reuters)

(Representative Image: Reuters)

India's villages are not tranquil havens: they are over-crowded with limited or no sanitation services or safe drinking water, leave alone well-equipped, functioning public health centres (PHCs) capable enough to tackle health emergencies of the kind posed by Covid-19 infection.

The past week has seen hundreds of photographs and video clips showing armies of migrant labourers undertaking perilous journeys across India. Thousands on foot -- from Delhi to their native villages in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the wake of the Covid-19 scare, with children sitting on their father's shoulders and women sharing in the burden of lifting heavy baggage. Besides being poignant, these images portray a yet-to-unfold tragedy. They expose the government's overwhelming inefficiency to plan and, accordingly, deal with a crisis situation.

The immediate impact of the Indian government's decision to 'lockdown' the entire country was collective panic, followed by the collective loss of jobs of hundreds and thousands of migrants labourers originally hailing from Bihar and UP, two heavily populated northern Indian states that 'supply' a bulk of the labour to India's megacities.

Even as India went into 'lockdown' mode, the government initially tried to use coercive methods to slow down or prevent the ensuing exodus of migrants and daily wage workers in the name of maintaining social distancing. It relented in the face of massive criticism of the mega-mismanagement, exposing systemic failure and the police's high-handedness in dealing with an evolving humanitarian crisis.

While the human and socio-economic consequences of Covid-19's impact on India cannot quite be predicted with any degree of accuracy -- because the number of affected people is nowhere near those in Europe and the US -- the uprooting of whole families of migrant labourers from the cities they lived and worked in will likely have massive consequences, especially on children in the 0-6 and 6-14 age-groups once they return to their villages.

In its wisdom, the central government has allowed farmers to continue tilling and tending to their land -- harvesting season is here. But its political will was found woefully wanting in dealing with the migrant labourers' ‘long march’ over hundreds of kilometres, with their children in tow. Once the jobless and hapless men and women reach their villages, a bleak future would await many of them. This could have severe consequences for them, their own children as well as the local children living in the villages.

The jobless migrants will return to their villages where they will have no cultivable land to fall back on (widespread splintering of land long ago led to landlessness which was the primary reason for the out-migration in the first place) and therefore will have no means of income. With no jobs available in the villages, thousands of returnees would, for all practical purposes, sit idle at home. Their reliance will be on the meagre savings, if any. Their small savings will dry up in no time, given the inflationary conditions countrywide.

As yet there is lack of clarity on how far the central government's relief package will go to pull the migrant labourers out of their immediate misery. Cash transfers, if any, would be meagre and will not last them more than a month. Not only would the unemployed rural folk and those belonging to the below poverty line (BPL) category be reduced to penury, they will likely be staring at starvation. Past epidemics, droughts and famines are known to have caused massive social and economic instability in both rural and urban India, besides causing intense inter-community rivalries and ruptures with their own human consequences. The returning migrant labourers would be a huge burden on the local economies and add to existing woes.

It now appears that the schools will remain closed for an indeterminate period of time. Not only would children -- local and the new returnees -- of school-going age not be in school, they could, at a later stage, be prime targets of child traffickers. Children's education would be at stake. This alone would expose them to crime and other abuses, besides leaving them homeless and therefore prone to trafficking, especially to larger cities where small and medium-sized businesses, if and when they revive once Covid-19 is "medically" extinguished or controlled.

Child labour is cheap in normal times. In the event of massive dislocations and loss of jobs caused by Covid-19, children, especially those from rural India, will likely be employed by small and medium-sized business establishments in megacities and tier-II towns for dirt cheap wages or none at all.

Deadly viruses know no boundaries or rules. They infect the youngest and the healthiest, though of course elderly men and women have been Covid-19's prime targets so far. In the event that the virus finds newer ground in India, especially the countryside, hundreds of thousands of the poor, malnourished and undernourished will fall prey or be affected in more ways than one. India's villages are not tranquil havens: they are over-crowded with limited or no sanitation services or safe drinking water, leave alone well-equipped, functioning public health centres (PHCs) capable enough to tackle health emergencies of the kind posed by Covid-19 infection. Suffice it to say that between 2014 and 2018, India's public health expenditure remained frozen between 1.12 percent and 1.58 percent of the GDP.

Not every village has a functioning PHC. Where they do exist, under-equipped PHCs cater to large clusters of surrounding villages. Even government district-level hospitals -- there is one in each of the 720 district headquarters -- are equally poorly equipped to deal with public health and medical emergencies. Bereft of modern technologies, healthcare facilities or even rudimentary sanitation necessary to combat infectious diseases, Covid-19 could move unabated and rapidly through homes and entire neighbourhoods, with adults and children as vectors.

According to a research-based study, "Globally, India performs poorly across standard child nutritional measures. For child malnutrition, India ranked 114 out of 132 countries, just ahead of Afghanistan and Pakistan. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data, from 1992–1993 to 2015–2016, paint a bleak picture of child nutrition". Extensive research across India by an NGO has revealed that malnutrition in India continues to be at a high level with 42.5 percent children below the age being underweight and almost 70 percent being anaemic", while "22 percent children are born with low birth weight". It is a no-brainer that malnutrition is closely tied to poverty.

In the backdrop of this already grim situation, the impact of the Coronavirus could be devastating, especially among poor households and those in the BPL category who are mostly dependent on government ration shops. The continuing supply-chain problem will compound in the days to come and cause severe food shortages in India's hinterland, which could potentially lead to impoverishment and consequently starvation, especially among the marginalised and the landless poor. Above all, in the event of a collapse of the mid-day meal scheme, much of rural India would be staring at a national disaster.

More importantly, if the Indian central and state governments do not focus on child nutrition "as a cornerstone investment", it would be impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

As the threat of widespread death looms over India, and knowing full well the weaknesses and incompetencies of government agencies in dealing with massive medical emergencies, community-based care and support programmes for vulnerable and/or orphaned children should be a critical component of post-Covid-19 treatment -- medical, psychological and economic -- of children and their families.

The governments could also liberally and deeply involve NGOs who have specific specialities in dealing with handling crises involving children in both urban and rural communities. The after-effects of a pandemic can be devastating, not only in terms of death and attendant destruction but also in terms of the insecurities that can potentially be unleashed on children -- health, malnutrition, undernutrition, abuses of all forms, sexual violence, trafficking, diseases, PTSD -- each of which need and require specific responses and interventions.

(Chandan Nandy is the Head of Communications of Bachpan Bachao Andolan)

first published:April 09, 2020, 15:08 IST
last updated:April 09, 2020, 15:10 IST