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Where have all the children gone?

Michelle Mendonca | Updated on June 17, 2020 Published on June 17, 2020

Hand to mouth: With schools being converted to quarantine centres, even the assurance of a basic meal seems like a distant dream for many schoolchildren   -  NAGARA GOPAL

The novel coronavirus crisis has diverted resources away from millions of minors who depend on the government for their basic needs

* Across India, government-run primary schools have been converted into quarantine centres and government teachers drafted on pandemic duty, according to news reports

* Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have seen the most number of jobless workers returning to their villages, also account for one-third of child labourers in the country

* International agencies warned last week that the coronavirus crisis could lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of progress

Twelve-year-old Gopal studied in a government school in Sitamarhi, Bihar. He was a regular student, for he knew he had a chance of completing his secondary education — and took pride in the fact that he’d be the first in the family to do so. School attendance not only helped him dream, but also gave him his single nutritious daily meal.

Gopal does not attend school any more. The lockdown and the resultant school closures from March this year have forced millions of children like him to stay home. Gopal’s school is now a quarantine centre, and his teachers are supervising workers returning to their village from their former places of work. He received a small sum from the state government to compensate for the loss of the mid-day meals — but this money soon ran out when Gopal’s labourer parents lost their jobs and depended on his food stipend to feed their family of six.

The coronavirus has hijacked global attention and triggered a frantic redirection of public money and attention towards life-saving measures. However, this narrowed focus has diverted resources away from poor children who depend on the government for basic needs.

Nothing can compensate Gopal for his loss of education. Income shocks coupled with school closure have blocked his exit routes out of poverty, and his life will mirror that of his parents: Daily wagers, vulnerable to exploitation and debt bondage, whose back-breaking work always falls short of the extortionate demands of moneylenders.

Gopal is not alone in his bleakness nor is he the worst off in his village: Some of his friends, who returned from the cities, are not entitled to even the meagre meal benefit. Other families, who were above the poverty line, have lost incomes, exhausted their savings and have no access to basic entitlements such as health insurance, gas connections or pensions. Gopal and his peers are gearing up to begin their working life as soon as movement restrictions ease. Many are stealthily boarding buses to Punjab and Haryana to work for food.

Children such as Gopal are affected by three interweaving and mutually reinforcing factors: Economic, political and social, each intensified by the coronavirus. First, income shocks have aggravated extreme poverty and deprivation of educational opportunity. International agencies warned last week that the coronavirus crisis could lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of progress.

The second factor is political. Many poor children such as Gopal are from the politically marginalised Musahar and Mahadalit communities, which lack power to mobilise State protection even in favourable circumstances. Lax regulation on child labour preceded the coronavirus and provided loopholes for desperate children to fall through. But the current economic decimation saw states hastily jettisoning basic labour rights as they raced to the bottom to salvage the economy by attracting investment.

Even the inviolable right to education has been surrendered to the pandemic: Across India, government-run primary schools have been converted into quarantine centres and government teachers drafted on pandemic duty, according to news reports.

The final devastating factor that hits Gopal is social: The shared apathy that normalises child labour and mutely rationalises an increase in child exploitation as collateral damage of overcoming the pandemic. The callous fault lines of the coronavirus policy response evoked public outcry but the impact of these policies on children remains largely unquestioned. The coronavirus has rendered children invisible.

The problem seems overwhelming: Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have seen the most number of jobless workers returning to their villages, also account for one-third of child labourers in the country. About 6.57 million children in these two states alone work for food, according to reports.

To protect children against heightened risk of trafficking and child labour, they must be provided increased support for education. One strategy the International Labour Organization recommends is cash transfers for poor families, coupled with interventions on health and education.

Government sponsorship for needy children can be routed through the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, but its high eligibility criteria defeat its purpose by cordoning off benefits behind an insurmountable wall. For instance, to be eligible for the scheme, families need an income certificate and a bank account, while in rural areas the scheme does not extend to children whose family income exceeds ₹2,000 per month.

Another imperative is to strengthen the rural safety net. The village-level Child Protection Committees, slated to protect children against abuse or exploitation, exist only on paper, lack resources as well as accountability mechanisms. They need to be supported towards effective functioning.

India also needs effective anti-trafficking laws to end impunity for those who exploit children. The Central government must comply with the Supreme Court’s 2016 directions to deliver an effective anti-trafficking framework. States must act proactively to protect children’s basic rights.

It’s vital that governments across India learn from the Ebola epidemic in Africa, where popular fears triggered by the use of schools as transition centres resulted in an irrevocable loss of educational opportunities for children as schools were perceived as unsafe even after the pandemic abated.

Some initial evidence suggests that the coronavirus impacts children only mildly but the policy response and its inter-generational impact may prove fatal for them. It’s time to develop a public health strategy that does not involve sacrificing children such as Gopal for the welfare of the State.

Michelle Mendonca is a child rights and anti-trafficking advocate in Mumbai

Published on June 17, 2020
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