Pandemic-induced hunger forces millions of Indian children into cheap labor market

Special Pandemic-induced hunger forces millions of Indian children into cheap labor market
Sujay Haldar and Vicky Kumar, 10, have been working as rag pickers in Noida, Uttar Pradesh ever since the coronavirus lockdown forced their families out of work. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 October 2020

Pandemic-induced hunger forces millions of Indian children into cheap labor market

Pandemic-induced hunger forces millions of Indian children into cheap labor market
  • Rights groups blame lack of money, support from govt. for spike in child trafficking cases

NEW DELHI: Ten-year-old Sujay Haldar has a difficult decision to make in the next few weeks – should he return to his hilly hometown of Nainital in India’s Uttarakhand state to resume school or continue working as a ragpicker in Noida, an industrial city in Uttar Pradesh?

The youngster’s ordeal began in March after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic paralyzed the country, putting millions of people out of work, and leaving most struggling to make ends meet.

“I never worked before. My life moved around school and other fun activities. Once the lockdown started, we faced an acute shortage of income, and for us, it became difficult to manage even our daily ration,” Haldar told Arab News.

The Grade 4 student said that with schools closed during the lockdown and his parents, who worked as daily wagers, rendered jobless his family faced a “hunger-like situation” in the absence of any income or “support from the government.”

Haldar, the eldest of three siblings, added: “Once the lockdown got relaxed, my family came to Noida in search of work. Since June, I have been rag-picking to support the family.”

His neighbor and friend, Vinay Kumar, also aged 10, is in the same situation. He said: “We decided to work together as going alone was risky. Usually, we earn 400 (Indian) rupees ($5.45) per day and split the income. It comes in handy for the family in this hour of crisis.”

Haldar and Kumar’s stories are not unique to the narrative of child labor issues in India.

According to a 2011 census, India has more than 10.1 million cases of children working as laborers.

However, child rights organizations claim that there has been a spike in the number of cases and incidents of child trafficking in the past four months since lockdown restrictions were relaxed.

“The number of cases of child trafficking and child labor has gone up in recent months after an ease in lockdown conditions and gradual reopening of the economy,” Dhananjay Tinga, of prominent New Delhi-based child rights NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Protest, or BBA), told Arab News.

Established in 1980, the BBA “is India’s largest movement for the protection of children and works with government agencies and policymakers to strengthen the system,” according to its website.

At its helm is child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi who won a Nobel Prize for his efforts in 2014.

Tinga said some migrant workers returned to their native states of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh during the lockdown after losing jobs overnight.

One estimate suggests that 2.5 million people returned to Bihar alone from different parts of the country.

“Once the economy opened, there was pressure from factories around the country to find workers. With schools shut and daily wage workers facing acute economic distress, they are forcing their children also to work,” he added.

In the months of June to September, the BBA rescued 1,195 children from workplaces while more than 100 child traffickers have been arrested.

Patna-based NGO, Human Liberty Network (HLN), which works for the reduction of human trafficking cases, said that several factory owners allegedly sent “luxury buses to Bihar to ferry children for industrial work.”

Suresh Kumar, executive director of Centre DIRECT, an affiliate NGO of HLN, on Monday told Arab News: “So far, 300 children have been rescued from various parts of the country and have been brought back to their native state in the last three months.”

He said that unlike in the past, this time children were not being trafficked by “unknown persons, but by their parents.”

Kumar, who is currently helping to look after 500 rescued children, added: “The parents are accompanying their children to avoid attention. The impoverished parents facing an existential crisis feel that the children are less prone to COVID-19 and they can provide much-needed economic assistance in this hour of grave crisis.”

He blamed a lack of support from the government for their dire straits. “The local government promised jobs, but they did not give; they promised ration, and that was also not delivered fully. As a result, they faced an acute pressure on their livelihoods which forced them to migrate to different places with their children.”

Meanwhile, another NGO, Save the Children, conducted two rapid assessments of child labor cases – both during the lockdown and after – and found that marginalized sections of society were the “worst affected” by the pandemic-induced economic disruptions.

“We managed to speak to nearly 8,000 people – both children and parents – and found that the pandemic has created great pressure on employment for the most marginalized sections of society who we work with,” Anindit Roy Chowdhury, program director of Save the Children, told Arab News.

One such example was that of 12-year-old Pawan Pasi who, along with six other children, was rescued from a child trafficker at Old Delhi railway station, in early September.

Pasi said he was lured with job opportunities and agreed to the arrangement because “the situation at home was not good. We need money and food. I was brought to Delhi to work in some units.”

Now in a BBA-run rehabilitation center, Pasi added: “I feel it was a mistake to come to Delhi. I want to study. Living in the shelter for over a month has taught me the value of education.”