COVID lockdown: ‘Reverse trafficking’ of child labour

In COVID-19 lockdown, ‘reverse trafficking’ of child labour

In perspective

Children in distress

In a bizarre turnaround, traffickers are returning hundreds of children, who they had earlier trafficked to be used as child labour in sweat shops, back to their villages in Bihar. 

With factories having closed post-Covid-19, feeding thousands of child labourers crammed in tiny rooms, where their small hands were used to make assorted handicrafts, was more than their employers had bargained for. With bus and train services resuming across states like Rajasthan and Gujarat, such children are being bundled into them by the same traffickers who had brought them to Bhatta Basti in Jaipur and other such labour hubs in the first place. Bhatta Basti is known for small units that produce lac bangles and other handicrafts.  

Twenty-nine children, carrying false Aadhaar cards showing their ages to be over 18 years, were rescued on Thursday last when they got down from a Shramik Express Special Train at the Madhubani station in Bihar. They had boarded the train at Jaipur.

Another 29 children were being put into buses at Dausa and Bharatpur in Rajasthan when activists from Childline and the  National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, along with the police, swung into action and rescued them. In this case also, the kids were carrying fake identity cards which showed their ages to be over 18, though it was clear that some of them were only 11 or 12 years of age. 

It seems strange that in both these operations, not a single trafficker was arrested. The children rescued at the Madhubani station have been placed in a quarantine centre and will be sent to their homes after 14 days. 

Heenu Singh, who heads the north regional centre of Childline India Foundation, says that child labourers working in the BT cotton fields of Gujarat and northern Maharashtra are also being moved back to their homes in a large-scale undercover operation.

The problem is that, in the majority of cases, the trafficker is from the same village as these boys, and is known to them. Following the spread of the pandemic, the child labourers are desperate to get home as they too are terrified of being infected.

Mahadev Debanghi, centre coordinator with Childline in the eastern sector, cites the example of a 12-year-old who was rescued on Thursday at the Madhubani railway station. He had been taken to Jaipur only six months ago on the promise that he would be allowed to study and would have to work for only two hours daily to make Rs 3,000 every month. However, neither he nor any of the other children received even one rupee in salary while being forced to work up to 18 hours a day.

The trafficker, on the other hand, received from the owners of small workshops a monthly `honorarium’ of Rs 1,000-2,000 per month for every child working in these clusters. That is why he has a stake in bringing these kids back home. Whenever the industries restart, many of these kids will be taken back to these places, said Debanghi.

With trains having resumed, Debanghi  expects child labourers to be returning to different districts in Bihar, including Patna, Gaya, Nalanda, Nawada, East and West Champaran, Sitamarhi, Mad hubani, Samastipur, Madhupura  and Supaul and also other states across India. 

The numbers will be large. India has over 10 million child labourers, according to Census 2011, but this is the first time in decades that children are being brought back to their homes.

The problem is that, technically, none of these rescued children fall under the category of bonded labour, which would entitle them to compensation from both the state and Centre. Only children rescued from their workplaces are entitled to receive state compensation, say activists.

In any case, as Suresh Kumar, executive director of the Bihar-based NGO Centre Direct, pointed out, rescued children seldom receive any compensation.   

“The state labour department works in a non-transparent manner and is more in league with the employer than in giving these child victims the entitlements that are their due,’’ said Kumar. 

In the majority of cases, little action has been taken against either the trafficker or against the parents who, for minuscule amounts of money, are also abettors in this crime.

“Considering the scale of the crime, one would have thought that hundreds of traffickers would have been jailed. Convictions are minuscule because the children are intimidated and refuse to testify against them in court. Only in one high profile case was Bihar-based trafficker Mohammed Toufiq convicted last year by a Jaipur court and that, too, after two FIRs were filed against him,” said Kumar. 

Even in the three rescue operations conducted on Thursday, the traffickers managed to escape.

Childline received as many as 92,000 SOS calls (a 50% surge) during the first 11 days of the first lockdown, with callers requesting protection from abuse and violence. Many child labourers, allowed out briefly to go to a toilet, rang up on this helpline. 

Child activists are terrified at the post-Covid 19 situation which has rendered millions of workers jobless. Explained Heenu  Singh, “With no jobs and no food available for millions of families, this is going to be the golden period for traffickers. They are going to enjoy a free hand,” she said.

The decision of the state governments of Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat to relax labour laws will further embolden employers and traffickers. Parents are going to `sell’ their kids for a few rupees. Young, vulnerable children will be forced to spend their childhood and teenage in suffocating sweatshops without nourishing food or payment for their hard labour. 

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Delhi)