Lockdown loans to survive could push street children into bonded labour, fear NGOs

Uzmi Athar

New Delhi, Jun 28 (PTI) He ran away from his home in Bihar, lived on Delhi’s streets, sold scraps for a living and then, just as life was settling into an uneasy groove, came the lockdown pushing the 15-year-old into an endless cycle of debt.

The young teen, whose earnings have come down from Rs 200 to just about Rs 15-20 a day since the lockdown in March, was compelled to take loans and has no resources to pay his borrowers back, raising fears that he might be forced into bonded labour.

He is not alone.

According to an estimate by the NGO Save the Children, about two million children live on the streets across the country. Scrambling to survive on the margins of society, they are shunned, barely make do and may now be exploited because they are not in a position to pay back their borrowers.

The 15-year-old, whose name is being withheld to protect his privacy, is unaware of what could lie ahead but spells out his many problems.

'The lockdown was very difficult but at least some people were feeding us. Now that has stopped. I live near the New Delhi Railway Station. Trains are not running regularly so my earnings from scrap have dipped from about Rs 200 to just Rs 15-20 per day. I had no option but to borrow money,' he told PTI.

The danger of children like him becoming bonded labourers is very real, said activists and others working with children across the country.

Children take credit locally and have no means to returning it except for working for free, explained Anindit Roy Choudhary, director of programmes and policy impact, Save the Children (India), “The amount can vary between Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000. Most of them do not have a cushion to be able to repay so a common practice is to work the loan out. It is always problematic because the person who has given the loan takes an interest on the amount so there is no estimation… that is where bonded labour starts,' he said.

'This will also become a common practice because children just don't have anything to eat and no money in their hands. So the possibility of them wanting to have cash is high,' he added.  This is true even of those who live with their families.

The last few months have been hell, said another street child who lives with his family under a flyover in Sarai Kale Khan.

During the period, his father fell sick and was nearly thrown out of the area because people suspected he was infected with the coronavirus.

'There were times in the last two months when my father turned very critical with severe breathing difficulties. I had to take a Rs 3,000 loan to get injections for his treatment which I will need to repay soon,' the 17-year-old told PTI.

Sanjay Gupta, founder of CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action), an NGO working for street children, expressed concern over the deteriorating condition of street children.

'There can be risk of bonded labour among these street children,' Gupta said, adding that some children had taken loans and are not sure how to repay them.

There were many other issues as well.

'We lost contact with a number of children during the lockdown. When we got back in touch with them recently, we found they were in a worse condition. They had not taken a bath because of lack of movement during the period. Some had wounds which had gotten worse because they could not get treated,' Gupta said.

And all the children said they have eaten half of what they would have during this period.

'If they stood in lines where food was being distributed, they were shooed away.. They were referred as corona because of their unkempt appearance,' Gupta said.

Niharika Chopra, director of policy at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation said the lockdown has exacerbated the already widely prevalent problem of child bonded labour.

During the lockdown, Bachpan Bachao Andolan rescued over 328 children across the country.

'We also  anticipate that cases of child bonded labour are likely to increase both in urban areas and  villages. The children of families who have lost their means of livelihood and are facing hunger and starvation are extremely susceptible to all forms of exploitation, including trafficking, forced and bonded labour,' she said.

According to Save the Children’s Choudhary, the lockdown and the pandemic has pushed the clock back.

“Any kind of exploitation triggered by poverty, whether it is bonded labour or child trafficking for labour or commercial sexual exploitation… all of these are certainly going to increase because of COVID because children and families are going into ultra poverty,' he said.

'There is a possibility in increment in bonded labour numbers. We did very well in terms of child labour, and in bonded labour we improved substantially… but I do think we are going to go back in  the current context,' he added. PTI UZM MIN MIN MIN