The Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees and exposed multiple fault-lines in the healthcare, education, economic, and job-related sectors. India has not been immune to this devastation. As per the official statistics around 5,31,843 deaths have been reported from India to the WHO.

But it is among the marginalised sections of society, especially women and children, that the effect of the pandemic has been deep and long lasting. Households that were surviving in poor economic conditions were pushed to the brink of poverty. These conditions have exacerbated the social inequities and have exposed women and children to abuse, violence and lack of security. A 2022 report by UNICEF and ILO said that as Covid has put children at risk of child labour globally, the number of child labour cases were expected to rise by 8.9 million by the end of 2022. As per the US Department of Labour, disruption in supply chains has thrust people into unemployment leading to an increase in poverty.

According to the last available Census data, in 2011 there were 10.1 million child labourers in India. As per the National Crime Bureau Report 2022, in 2021, around 982 cases were registered under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, with the highest number of cases registered in Telangana, followed by Assam. The figures saw a significant increase from 476 cases registered under the Act in 2020.

Hazardous occupations

The economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has put excessive pressure on children to be income earners for the family, especially in cases where adult family members have lost their jobs or have not survived the pandemic. The catastrophic health costs associated with the pandemic have also put many families on the brink.

This has driven children to take up work in exploitative and hazardous circumstances. Closure of schools globally has also led to a surge in child labour around the world.

Article 21A of the Indian Constitution mandates that the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the ages of six to fourteen years in the manner prescribed by the State. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, gave affect to this constitutional provision. While ‘Free Education’ envisages that no child shall be liable to pay any fee or charges in a government supported school, ‘Compulsory Education’ casts an obligation on the appropriate authorities to ensure admission and sustenance of compulsory elementary education for such children.

Notably, the RTE Act leaves the children between the ages of 14-18 years out of its purview. Moreover, the Child Labour Act allows adolescents, that is, people between the ages of 14 and 18 years to engage in work if it does not qualify under hazardous occupations. It is this section of the children who then become most prone to the perils of child labour.

It is vital that children after they have been rescued from the jobs where they were employed illegally, are integrated and assimilated into the education system to build a better future for them. District and local administrations have to take proactive steps to ensure this part of the post rescue rehabilitation as it is the most vital element to ensure that they do not once again get trapped in that cycle of exploitation.

A stronger implementation of RTE, in terms of mobilisation of resources and all the actors in the ecosystem along with a robust infrastructure would enable access to education even for populations living in remote areas. Secondly, literacy awareness programmes targeting primary education for children must be undertaken by local authorities, especially in regions where the number of child labourers is high. These programmes must also consider adolescents who are not covered by RTE and are forced to work in factories and in unhygienic conditions. Additionally, policies amplifying the spread of education and curtailing child labour should be cohesive and complementary in nature.

The vulnerabilities of children demand the extension of special care and protection for them on account of their mental and physical immaturity.

The writer is a DMK MP