In rural India, a nationwide lockdown imposed in March pushed millions of people into poverty, encouraging trafficking of children from villages into cities for cheap labor. The pandemic is hampering enforcement of anti-child labor laws, with fewer workplace inspections and less vigorous pursuit of human traffickers.
“The situation is unprecedented,” said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a children’s rights group whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. “These children 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.”
Tingal’s organization has rescued at least 1,197 children between April and September across India. In the same period last year, it helped 613. Childline, a nationwide helpline for children in distress, received 192,000 distress calls between March and August, most of them related to cases of child labor. It handled 170,000 such calls in the same period of 2019.
In India, children under 14 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 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 UNICEF. In July, 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.
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.