More than 70 children were crammed into a bus, heading from Bihar to a sweatshop in the Indian city of Rajasthan, when authorities arrested him. Among the faces half-hidden behind colorful masks was 12-year-old Deepak Kumar.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Kumar was enrolled in fourth grade at school in his small district of Gaya, in the poor Indian state of Bihar. But when Covid-19 struck and the country went into lockdown, school doors closed across India and have not opened since. With his parents, both day laborers, unable to earn money and put food on the table, Kumar was sent last month to find work.
“During the lockdown, my parents didn’t have a job, and after the lockdown, my parents didn’t have any money to arrange food for us,” said Kumar, the oldest of seven. “My entire family somehow survived on a meager meal. Most of the time I slept on a half or completely empty stomach. So I joined a group to go to work. I thought to myself, “If I work, I’ll make money and at least eat good food.” His home district of Gaya is now said to have around 80,000 children working as laborers.
Deepak’s father, Ramashraya Manjhi, 50, a daily farm worker, said he allowed his 12-year-old son to go out to work to save the whole family from starvation.
“I was given 2 kg of grain per day to work in the field, but after the lockdown all the food was exhausted at home,” Manjhi said. “I had nothing to feed my seven children, so I asked my oldest to go out to work. My son also said that if he worked he would get food and provide it to us as well.
As the coronavirus pandemic devastated India, no one has suffered worse than their children. In the span of seven months, the country set back decades in the fight against child labor, child trafficking and child marriage, with the foreclosure and subsequent economic collapse creating a perfect storm of poverty and exploitation. Schools, which are not only vital for education, but act as an essential monitoring mechanism to ensure that children are kept out of the hands of child traffickers and are not pushed into arranged child marriages, have been closed since March.
Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan movement that saves trafficked children, said that between April and September, he rescued more than 1,200 illegally trafficked children to work in factories or farms, a peak unlike anything he had seen before. The children were generally between eight and 18 years old, although some were only six years old. Their average salary was usually 1000 rupees (£ 10.50) per month, around 40 pence per day.
In India, all child labor is illegal for children under the age of 14, with few exceptions, and between 14 and 18 children are prohibited from any work that is “dangerous” or affects their development.
Tingal recounted a recent rescue operation on October 6 in which raids were carried out on several roadside restaurants, known as the dhabasand auto shops in North Delhi. They rescued 12 boys, the youngest of whom was eight, who had been trafficked from neighboring states to work. Before the pandemic, several of the boys were in school.
“Over the past six months, child labor and child marriage have become coping mechanisms for families who got into debt and poor during the pandemic,” said Prabhat Kumar, deputy director of protection of the country. childhood for Save the Children India. “At the same time, the demand for cheap child labor has increased enormously.”
Kumar added: “Our experience is that once a child has started working and has earned even a small amount of money, they are unlikely to return to school. What then follows is a cycle of poverty, vulnerability and exploitation. These children work 16 hours for less than the minimum wage and often develop very serious health problems. “
When a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed on India with just four hours’ notice, the devastating impact on its hundreds of millions of migrant workers – who were left stranded in the hundreds, sometimes at thousands of kilometers from home with no way to make money – was well documented. Less visible in this humanitarian crisis were the tens of millions of children who had been trafficked from their villages to work in garment and jewelry factories, sweatshops and auto workshops in urban centers such as Delhi and Jaipur, which also found themselves stranded.
They returned en masse to their villages in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, but the fate awaiting them there was not much better. Many of their parents were day laborers who had no way of earning money and now had more mouths to feed. Many families have taken on expensive loans from unregulated lenders, growing into debt.
When the lockout began to lift in June and factories reopened, work for adult day laborers again proved difficult to find. The industry, anxious to make up for three months of losses, sent recruiters to rural villages in search of the cheapest labor possible: children. With poor families heavily in debt and their children out of school, many have agreed to send their sons and daughters to work in garment factories, bracelet sweatshops, farms and restaurants.
“After the lockdown, the traffickers refused to hire the adults to work. They told the families that they would only hire the children, so the families felt they had no choice, ”Tingal said. “What families don’t know is how difficult it is for children to return once on a bus for these sweatshops in the big cities.
Villages in India’s poorest state of Bihar, estimated to have over one million children in labor, have been a particular target for labor recruiters and traffickers. . “We have saved around 300 children from the clutches of human traffickers in recent weeks. Seventy-five of them were rescued from a bus carrying them outside of Bihar, while 200 were rescued from various states, ”said Raj Kumar, director of Bihar’s social welfare department.
Suresh Kumar of the Human Liberty Network, a group of NGOs working to end child trafficking, said: “We are shocked to see small children boarding buses to work as factory laborers to support the children. needs of their families. So far, we have intercepted seven buses. “
Ratna Sanjay Katiyar, Inspector General of Bihar Police, said they were “alert” to the problem and that forces were watching train and bus stations to intercept trafficked children.
The pandemic has also sabotaged community mechanisms in place to prevent child marriage in states like Rajasthan. India has the third highest number of child marriages in the world, and a recent Save the Children report estimates that an additional 200,000 children in South Asia would be forced to marry this year due to Covid-related circumstances. 19.
Kriti Bharti, founder of the Saarthi Trust, which works to prevent and end child marriage in Rajasthan, generally relies on a network of informants in villages to end child marriage, but said the lockdown and viral restrictions had made it unnecessary.
“Child marriages rose sharply because the villagers realized that no one was watching anymore, that the government and law enforcement were concerned about Covid-19, so they saw this as an opportunity for their daughters are getting married, ”Bharti said sadly.
Just over a month ago, in a small village in Dholpur district, three girls, aged 13 to 16, were quietly married off to older men from another state. The ceremony, said a neighbor, went without too much fuss. “It’s our tradition. He protects the girls, ”said the neighbor. “The family knew the police wouldn’t come – they’re too busy because of all this Covid.”