Over the past two years, children around the world have been the hardest hit by the never-ending waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. On June 10, 2021, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) released a report ahead of the World Day Against Child Labour in which it stated that the SDG 8.7 target eliminating child labour by 2025 has been pushed back by decades. One of the reasons for missing the target is that in 2020 alone, the pandemic added 142 million children belonging to households subsisting in extreme poverty in addition to the existing 512 million in 2019.
Though Covid-19 is not the only factor behind the rise in children from households suffering from extreme poverty, the increased job losses due to the pandemic was a key reason for the reversal in the positive trend. The report noted that child labour figures declined by 94 million between 2016 and 2020 but suffered a setback because 8.4 million were pushed back into child labour in just the first year of the pandemic.
Some of the key findings of the exhaustive report revealed disturbing trends. It noted that the maximum instances of child labour take place within families, estimated at 72% for all child labour, and 83% of it takes place in the age group of five to 11 within families on farms and micro enterprises. This is crucial in the Indian context because the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, permits this, much to the surprise of NGOs and activists. Incidentally, the Government of India has also recently added a pledge available on the MyGov.in app, which says ‘Let’s Say No to Child Labour’ that had been signed by 38,949 citizens by April-beginning.
According to the ILO, more than one in four children in the five to 11 age group and nearly half of those aged 12 to 14, working in family-based enterprises are likely to face harm to health and safety. The children are also prone to sexual exploitation and child trafficking. More than a quarter in the former age group and over a third in the latter remain deprived of education due to working with the family. In India the dropout rate among children in these two age groups is approximately 50%, despite the Right to Education and a host of other laws to protect children, who constitute 38% of the population.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, is supposed to guarantee free and compulsory education to every child up to 14 years. For effective implementation of the act, even in private schools 25% of seats are meant to be reserved for children from disadvantaged groups, including those with disabilities. The added incentive for children to attend school is the mid-day meal scheme. However, in recent years, the implementation of this scheme in certain states has been controversial.
Some of the states, especially in north and central India, have stopped serving eggs and other non-vegetarian items in mid-day meals on the grounds of religious sensitivity. Ashok Aggarwal, Supreme Court advocate and child welfare activist, told Tatsat Chronicle that on a recent visit to schools in Patna, principals informed him that attendance improves whenever eggs are served as part of the mid-day meal. Drawing children to schools and retaining them is crucial as it has been observed that there is a strong corelation between school dropout rates and child labour.
Since most of the child labour in India is engaged in the unorganised sector, accurate and current numbers are hard to come by. The ILO, quoting the 2011 Census figures, states that “the total child population in India in the age group (5-14 years) is 259.6 million. Of these, 10.1 million (3.9% of total child population) are working, either as ‘main worker’ or as ‘marginal worker’. In addition, more than 42.7 million children in India are out of school”. Studies have revealed that most of the child labour is engaged in the diamond industry, carpet weaving, beedi and bangle making, and in Dhabas (small restaurants). International organisations like Human Rights Watch and ILO have emphasised that education is the strongest tool to check child labour. They have also suggested that poor families should be provided cash incentives to encourage children to go to school.
Aggarwal, who has been pursuing RTE violations in various courts, says that the condition of government schools in states such as Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and so on contributes to the problem. “The condition of government schools, where 60% of children study, is pathetic. Of the 23 crore children in the age group of 3 to18, approximately 50% become dropouts and they end up as child labour,” says the advocate. “Instead of tackling this issue upfront, the New Education Policy talks of Open Schools and anganwadis providing them education. Now, if you add another two to three crore disabled children—according to the Ministry of HRD—the situation becomes untenable. In Rampur, I found children of even middle-class families returning home after finishing their classes to work in family enterprises. This is inhuman and must be stopped at all costs.”
Experts find some of the provisions, following the amendments made to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 2016, confounding. “I think the two major amendments made to the act in 2016 are beyond our understanding. One, it allows children to work in family enterprises and, second, it gave exemption to children to work in the entertainment industry,” says Ashwini Singh, senior Supreme Court lawyer and former consultant to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC). The first is a direct violation of the RTE, because it expects a child to attend school and then work for the family after returning home. In rural areas, children have to often walk long distances to school and back. The second problem is that there is no way to check whether a child is working with his own family. The final authority for certification is the patwari, but we all know how they work in India. Therefore, it’s no surprise to see the school dropout rates rising during the pandemic.
Incidences of child beggars are also a symptom of this systemic problem, and in some cases the family is dependent on it for income. “I’ll tell you something very strange. When I read (Arvind) Kejriwal’s statement about building a home for beggars when he saw some children at a traffic signal, I was reminded of a case of a girl who was found begging and sent to a children’s home. Within a few days her case was taken up by a lawyer and since then the members of the Child Welfare Committee have been alleging kidnapping,” says Mukesh, who has been working for Prayas JAC Society for more than 20 years.
He explains the difficulty in sending child beggars to children’s homes because the entire family is dependent on them. They normally earn around ₹15,000 per month, and if they are sent to children’s homes even with good facilities, as promised by the Delhi CM, their families would starve. The decriminalisation of beggary in Delhi means beggars cannot be arrested, but when the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2018 neither the Delhi government nor the Centre offered any rehabilitation package. The bench of acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar came down heavily on the State for not providing social security, observing: “If we want to eradicate begging, artificial means to make them invisible will not suffice.A move to criminalise them will make them invisible without addressing the root problem.” Delhi may have abolished the Beggary Act; however, there are 20 states and two Union Territories that still use the anti-begging act in some form or the other to arrest beggars, who are perceived as a nuisance.
According to the ILO, more than one in four children in the five to 11 age group and nearly half of those aged 12 to 14, working in family-based enterprises are likely to face harm
The problem of child labour is deeply entrenched in society. Mukesh reveals that Prayas teams from Jahangirpuri, Pooth Khurd, and the New Delhi Railway Station rescued 2,958 children in the past year, despite restrictions due to the pandemic. He says that most of the rescued children were employed in bangle making and embroidery shops in Delhi, where young girls between the ages of six and 14 are needed for their nimble fingers. They used to work from six in the morning until midnight. Most of them became TB patients and were not even paid minimum wages under the Delhi Minimum Wages Act.
Most of the legal experts and activists expressed their frustration in cases of compensation, which are complicated and take years to settle in courts. On a brighter note, Mukesh says that Prayas managed to get a compensation of ₹44 lakh on behalf of the rescued children and arrange for their rehabilitation. Sometimes getting a case registered is a problem because the police simply refuse to act, even though they are legally bound to do so. Mukesh recalls an incident in 2007 when a girl from West Bengal was sold for ₹60,000 by her parents on the promise of marriage in Jhajjar and ended up being sexually exploited and beaten. When it was brought to the notice of the local police, they refused to take any action until former IPS officer Amod Kanth, who is also the general secretary of Prayas, intervened.
Organisations like Human Rights Watch and ILO have emphasised that education is the strongest tool to check child labour. They have suggested that poor families should be provided cash incentives
“My experience tells me that as a nation our priorities are warped. The benefits are not reaching the actual beneficiary. While a children’s home with 50 children has an annual budget of ₹38 lakh, a five-member Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of the Delhi government has a budget of ₹45 lakh,” points out Mukesh. Incidentally, the Delhi government doubled the salaries of the members in 2015 after NGOs and activists complained that competent people were not joining because they were not paid well. It was after this that the government decided to pay ₹9.24 lakh per person per sitting. As a result, the total expenditure incurred on nine committees and two boards was approximately ₹4.06 crore.
Experts state wryly that the money spent on committees would be much better utilised if it was spent on the implementation of strategies that could eradicate child labour, especially after the sharp spike due to the Covid-19 pandemic.