Teachers visit families to check in with their students, but online learning is beyond the reach of millions of families that can’t afford smartphones or laptops. Most of India’s elementary and middle schools are still closed because of the pandemic, affecting more than 200 million children.
A boy who cried out when he was beaten for complaining of stomach pains drew attention from a passerby, and who alerted the police. Officers broke a padlock on the gate of the illegal shoe factory where the boy was working and found a dozen children aged between 10-17.
With classrooms shut and parents losing their jobs because of the pandemic, thousands of families are putting their children to work undoing decades of progress in curbing child labour and threatening the future of a generation of India’s children.
In rural India, nationwide lockdowns imposed pushes millions of people into poverty, encouraging trafficking of children from villages into cities for cheap labour. The pandemic is hampering enforcement of anti-child labor laws, with fewer workplace inspections and less vigorous pursuit of human traffickers. It has become an unprecedented situation says the Indian NGO community.
Children in these age groups are made to work 14-16 hours a day and if they refuse to work they are beaten. One beating sends the message down the group, which suits the owner, according to the same Indian NGO community. Indian NGO’s have, during the period, rescued thousands of children across India. The 13-year-old boy who was working in the illegal shoe factory was working 12-14 hours a day attaching the rubber soles of shoes with glue in a small cramped room, with little food and water when police rescued him and other children. He was sent home to his rural town in the state of Uttar Pradesh. But with schools closed and his father struggling to feed his four children, the boy went back to work, this time on a farm in his village.
In India, children under 14 years of age are not allowed to work except in family businesses and farms. They are also barred from dangerous workplaces such as construction sites, brick kilns and chemical factories.
The story continues with his father one day met a man who promised to give his son a job paying about $60 a month. Ultimately, the family only got one month’s pay for the two months the boy worked there before he was rescued. “I was swayed by those words and allowed him to take my son to the city,” the father said. And in many cases, families know the child traffickers according to Indian children’s rights activists. In some Uttar Pradesh villages, traffickers distributed free food to impoverished families during the pandemic lockdown, which lasted 68 days. Having earned the confidence of the villagers, they offered to give their children jobs in big cities. And, “as the villagers knew these people, they agreed and sent their children with them,” also according to Indian children’s activists. Many did not return for months and were sent home only after being rescued by the Authorities and nonprofit groups. Some have not yet been found.
In July of 2020, India’s Home Ministry redoubled its fight against the resurgence of child labor, issuing guidelines for urgently setting up Anti Human Trafficking Units in every district. Many Indian states have flouted that advisory. Child rights activist in Uttar Pradesh, said the government’s efforts to protect children since the pandemic began have been abysmal. Most of India’s elementary and middle schools are still closed because of the pandemic, affecting more than 200 million children. Teachers visit families to check in with students, but online learning is beyond the reach of millions of families that can’t afford smartphones or laptops.
One fine morning in a suburb of the capital New Delhi, a father watched with concern as his 14-year-old son shouldered a heavy bag of sand at a construction site. “Keep your body stiff. Else it’ll fall,” the father shouted as the boy, a seventh-grader, headed barefoot into the building. At least four other children were working alongside their parents. With schools closed, the boy will keep working, his father said. “There is already very little work. If he won’t help us in these trying times, we won’t have enough to eat,” the father said.
The country has made serious gains in combatting child labor, but more than 10 million Indian children are still in some form of servitude, according to official statistics (UNICEF). The pandemic, so far, has infected more than 11 million Indians and killed more than 153,000 people.