Chennai: Children are not the face of this pandemic but they risk being among its biggest victims, a report released by the United Nations in April had said.
In India, the crisis is snowballing for marginalised children. Migrant child labourers, street children, child beggars and farmers’ children trapped midway, are fighting more than they can at their age.
There are 10 million child labourers in India, according to the 2011 Census.
On April 18, Jamlo Madkam, a 12-year-old plantation labourer died after walking for three days towards her home in Chhattisgarh from Telangana.
“Child workers from Sitamarhi district in Bihar have not returned home from major cities. We are clueless about their whereabouts and safety. Instead of hoping for the best, we need to ensure all of them are safe in government shelters. It is impossible for the civil society to achieve this without the help of government machinery,” said Parineeta Kumari, director of the NGO ‘Adithi’. Kumari is a member of the District Child Protection Committee.
Bihar has the second largest number of child labourers in the country, according to the 2011 Census.
“The emotional, physical or sexual exploitation of child labourers by employers is a reality. Either the employers should be made responsible for the children under their care, or else the government should ensure they get home safe. The very few child workers who have returned home, have not been paid their dues,” she said.
While a child worker in Mumbai can still manage to reach his village in Maharashtra, to expect the same of someone from Bihar working in Delhi would be entirely unfair, feel field workers. “Deprived of food, they don’t have money even for a phone call to inform their family about their well-being,” said Anindit Roy Chowdhury, director of programmes and policy at Save the Children, an NGO that reaches out to marginalised children.
“The need of the hour is extensive raids by the government to rescue the children. The employers are never going to release them on their own. Cheap labour is going to be in demand once the lockdown is lifted and child labourers are the easiest to exploit. The government should use this opportunity to free them from this bondage,” said Joshita Nag, programme coordinator at SOCH (Society for Children), an NGO in Odisha which rescues children from being trafficked.
Mehboob (15) a tool technician, and Abdul Nasir (12), a postcard seller, who reside at the Motor Market in Jama Masjid came to Delhi from Madhubani district in Bihar, six years ago. One cannot wait to return home and the other cannot wait to return to work.
Mehboob had to quit his studies and become the sole breadwinner of his family after his father became bedridden with illness. Every month, he sends home Rs 4,000 out of the Rs 5,000 he earns. “I am unable to support them anymore,” he said.
Abdul just wants to reach Madhubani.
“A little planning would have helped the children be with their families now. There should have been a task force created by the government along with the help of civil society to assist in the safe return of destitute children to their hometowns in buses along with a Childline staff. If we could do this for college students, why not for children living independently on the streets,” said Rita Panicker, director, Butterflies India, an NGO in New Delhi, working to protect street children.
Street children or ‘street connected children’ are those who depend on the streets to live or work and are either on their own or live with other children or family members. While there is no national data on street children, a study in 2016 by Save the Children in the cities of Lucknow-Mughal Sarai, Howrah, Hyderabad and Patna indicated that there are over two million children on the streets of India who have been deprived of their basic rights.
Around 80% of them had no form of legal identity and therefore, could not access social benefits by the government, like free and compulsory education and health insurance, among others.
In Mumbai, street children below the age of 14 with no families had been placed in institutions due to the lockdown but the older boys between 16 to 18 years of age who are without families continue to be unprotected, as per Pratham Council for Vulnerable Children, a Mumbai based NGO.
Some of them continue to live underneath bridges and inside large godowns, they eat when cooked food is distributed. Some collect discarded vegetables from markets to cook and eat, according to Urja Trust in Mumbai.
“In Odisha, many child beggars are from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, so we don’t have an exact count. It is challenging to accommodate them all in shelters, but we are doing our best,” said Banishree Pattnaik, Khordha district Child Protection Officer.
India has over three lakh child beggars, many of whom are forced into the profession with violent threats and beatings, according to the Census 2011.
“Just because we don’t see child beggars on the streets does not mean that we have eradicated beggary. The simple reason is that there are no prospective donors on the streets. In fact, we need to be more worried about the kids caught with the beggar mafia, now that they don’t contribute anything. We are ready to help the police as well,” said SOCH founder Manoj Kumar.
Children of many farmers from Vidarbha had been forced out of school and pushed to farming after their parents’ death by suicide, say volunteers.
“Initially during the lockdown, they were fighting starvation as the anganwadi centres and the mid-day meal schemes were shut. Due to systemic failures, their families had missed out on government ration. This included people from the Korku Adivasi and Pardhi community too. It has been seen that, COVID-19 doesn’t affect the young much, but social constraints and loss of livelihood will kill them faster,” said Dr Madhukar Gumble, director, Apeksha Homoeo Society, an NGO in Amravati division, Vidarbha in Maharashtra, that works towards children and women welfare.
An RTI reply that was sought in 2019 revealed that 7,700 farmers committed suicide in the last six years in Vidarbha, of which 6,000 were from Amravati. “We have always been fighting loan sharks. I have my cotton produce waiting to be sold off but there are neither transport facilities nor takers. This is a vicious cycle that causes children in our region to forsake studies for the sake of their parents,” said Maroti Chawre, a farmer and founder of the Ekal Mahila Sangathan, an NGO working towards the welfare of single women in the region.
The 1098 national emergency helpline operated by Childline exists to provide counselling, food, transport, vaccinations and help children with long or short-term rehabilitation, as required.
Childline received 4.6 lakh calls in the last 21 days, of which over 90% were for food. The helpline officials also made 9,385 interventions to prevent child marriages, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, trafficking, abandonment and child labour in this time.
“However, a large number of children may lack opportunities to report their distress as they may not have access to any mode of communication, or friends, teachers or other caring adults. Shelter for a rescued child is an issue in some districts as childcare institutions are hesitant to receive new children. The rehabilitation efforts also get delayed due to lack of transport,” according to the helpline official.
When contacted, Priyank Kanoongo, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights said that children are being accommodated in government shelters and advisory has been issued to all the state authorities to arrange child-care institutions and if required convert any place with adequate facilities into a shelter, under The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000.
“Anyone who sees a child living on the street with or without family, or in any trouble should report to 1098 or to the child welfare police officer (CWO) in the nearest police station. It is the mandatory duty of every such CWO to produce the child to the Child Welfare Committee, who will then assist the child further. There could be lacunas in the system, but we are striving to rescue every child in trouble. We can only intervene on the information we receive,” he said.
Even after the health emergency is over, there is a good chance that children will be pushed back into the workforce, again, said S.Naveen Sellaraju, Chief Executive Officer, Railway Children, an NGO that rescues and rehabilitates children from ten railway stations across cities.
Social activist Dr R.Mathivanan, founder of the Arumbugal Trust at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu feels that there can be no alternative to identification and integration of vulnerable children at this point..
Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.