'Lockdown And Loosened Labour Laws May Push Many Indian Children Into Exploitative Work'

The Covid-19 lockdown could put vulnerable children, who have been 'on the move' with their families and watched the suffering unfold first hand, under extreme psychological pressure, expose them to crime and abuse, and make them vulnerable to trafficking, says Priti Mahara, director of policy research and advocacy at CRY – Child Rights and You. In this interview with News18, she says that financial pressure due to the lockdown, together with relaxations made to labour laws, is likely to push children into bonded labour. Excerpts:

To begin with, how serious do you think is the threat of a huge number of children being pushed into doing manual labour because of the economic depression?

A: The Economic Survey Report 2019-20 shows that nearly 80% of the workforce in India comes from the unorganised sector with limited access to social security measures and employment benefits. The Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted an already struggling Indian economy.

This has translated to economic insecurity in households either due to death of earning members, loss of work and wages, or reduced employment opportunities especially for vulnerable communities. Thus, there are strong chances of children entering into manual or unskilled labour to compensate for the economic loss and/or to supplement their family's income.

Children’s demand in manual work in the agriculture sector and home-based enterprise and small-scale business might increase rapidly in the coming days. Recently, due to Covid-19, several states in India (including those with high prevalence of child and adolescent labour) have made relaxations to their labour laws.

Even though labour laws for children and women remain unchanged, the spillover effect of adult workers is likely to have a negative impact, especially for adolescent workers. Children are always considered as ‘cheap labour’ hence vastly preferred and employed by the labour market and employers.

In the absence of availability of adult labourers in urban areas, the demand for employing children especially adolescents may rise in the coming days, many of whom are forced to work for long hours, in hazardous and often abusive environments, for little or no pay, and often far from home. The loss of livelihood may force the families and children into bonded labour.

The closure of schools only exacerbates the risk of increase in working children, since drop-out children will either be directly supporting their families, or caught in trafficking, begging, debt bondage and other indecent and exploitative work conditions.

Would you have any estimates of the number or percentage increase of children that could get pushed into physical labour in the coming months? What are the numbers like right now?

A: According to Census 2011, the total number of child labourers in India between 5-14 years is 4.35 million (main workers) and 5.76 million (marginal workers), which comes to a total of 10.11 million.

Furthermore, the total number of adolescent labourers in India is 22.87 million, bringing the total (5-18 years) to around 33 million. 62% of child labourers in the age group of 5-14 years are concentrated in agriculture, forestry and fishing, closely followed by industries and services.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy is yet to completely unfold, hence it is difficult to estimate the magnitude of change in these numbers. However, there might be a sharp rise in numbers across all age groups and occupations unless immediate and sustained efforts are made to protect the rights of children.

What are the ways in which you think governments, both at the Centre and in the states, can intervene before the situation deteriorates further?

A: The government at the Centre as well as in the states need to make concerted efforts to improve the public health system along with strengthening social security, education and child protection mechanisms. Addressing health conditions of adults would enable them to work without compromising household security. Additionally, social security schemes such as provision of pensions, ration through the public distribution system, extending livelihood and employment opportunities, unemployment allowance/support and other anti-poverty measures would help families sustain themselves.

In addition, ensuring continuation of education for all children, especially the ones from marginalised households would be critical at this juncture. While efforts have been made to continue education for children through remote teaching options such as online classes, radio, television etc, most children from poor families do not have access to these mediums. It is essential that investments are made so that these families are given incentives to buy/access these media for remote learning.

These children are at a high risk of dropping out of education, and the community-level child protection mechanisms including the village child protection committees, along with Panchayati Raj institutions, school management committees must track every child in their villages and ensure their safety, especially from trafficking, marriage and forced labour. Stringent enforcement of the child labour law, the Integrated Child Protection Services Scheme is critical to safeguard children from the impact of Covid-19, including the fallouts of the economic slowdown. The government should also open special training centres with bridge classes in keeping with social distancing and other norms to help children make up for the academic loss.

Have you received any feedback from the ground about the situation of vulnerable children during the past two months of lockdown? What are their main worries right now? What sort of risks are they exposed to?

A: During this lockdown period of two months, feedback from CRY’s intervention areas brought to fore several issues that children are grappling with, especially the closure of schools. Not every vulnerable child has access to the internet and mobile phones, etc, hence they are not able to receive online classes. Schools and anganwadi centres are not only platforms for imparting education but also the hubs of delivering mid-day meals and other many social protection schemes to children and their families. With the closure of these facilities, children are not getting education, nutrition, immunisation, etc.

Besides access to education, there are many other challenges that children are facing in vulnerable pockets. Adolescent girls highlighted, for instance, that due to lockdown access to sanitary pads has been a challenge. Besides the unavailability of menstrual products in the shops, they are finding it difficult to share or ask family members to source the products due to menstrual stigma.

Children ‘on the move’ are currently deprived of immunisation, basic health and education needs. They are living in an environment where they are watching their family suffer, which may lead to deeper insecurities and extreme psychological pressure. All these children are at even higher risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. At a later stage, they are likely to be vulnerable to trafficking.

Children's education would also gravely be at stake, exposing them to crime and other abuses besides leaving them homeless. The traumatic experiences due to the crisis may affect their learning outcome and to an extent that they are likely to affect their retention in school.