What does it mean to lose one’s childhood to unsung labour? What is it like when books are replaced by bricks, playgrounds by agricultural fields, plastic toys with heavy-metal machines, alphabet recitations by silent cries of help? What is to have memories set in strife, solemn smiles, and tiny hands clasped in the chains of unquestioned slavery? Nobody knows. Because 160 million children worldwide, deep into an abyss of darkness and trauma, do not get to answer these questions.

A report published in June by the International Labour Organization and the UNICEF shows an increase of more than 8 million child labourers across the domain in the past four years, and over 9 million more children are expected to have lost their childhood by 2022.

Pandemic effect

As the pandemic would have it, in the first quarter of the year 2020 itself, over 370 million students kept away from schools, their essential dwelling grounds for an ambitious, educated future amidst an uncertain, often hostile, world. The situation got exacerbated further as state-sponsored policies like the Mid-Day Meal Scheme stood suspended in the event of the physical retreat of children from school, leading to a widespread increase in drop-out rates.

The concerns are further legitimised as a UN estimate shows that over 24 million students dropping-out of schools across the globe. Children in the poorest regions of India are, thus, facing a double whammy — the risk of illiteracy, as well as a clear denial of a nutritious meal, which had earlier acted as a pull-force for them to attend schools, defeating socio-economic compulsions.

The World Bank has predicted an addition of more than 12 million people in the below-poverty-line category in India during the pandemic. This, coupled with the reverse-migration of thousands of seasonal labourers due to lack of jobs in the city, has thrown the burden of fiscal adversity on the shoulders of children, now expected to support their families overcome this ordeal. Unreasonable market demand has made vulnerable children a part of the supply chain mechanism to supplement limited adult, skilled labour, in both urban and rural areas. These children have taken to hard agricultural labour, contractual work in brick kilns, and other industrial wage employment activities as a means to overcompensate for a phenomenon way beyond their control.

On top of this invariable and uncontrolled spike in child labour, a study conducted by Lancet has estimated that around 1.2 lakh children lost at least one parent between March 2020 and the end of April 2021. The loss of this parental shield against the scourge of the real world has exposed young orphans to social and market forces way beyond their understanding. One shudders to imagine the trauma these children might have to undergo on a physical and psychosocial level through exploitative hands. The possibility that children in their tender ages can fall prey to people with vested, criminal interests cannot be overlooked.

The Constitution of India guarantees free and compulsory education to children in the age group of eight and 14, prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous industries, and mandates the state to “direct its policy” towards the protection of children against forced labour and work-related abuse. But strong constitutional ideals must be accompanied by stronger policies, and more importantly, stronger implementation, oversight and evaluation mechanisms.

Despite the existence of a strict Child Labour Prohibition Act, misuse is prevalent due to the absence of strict repercussions. The biggest challenge comes from the non-recognition of the problem at the grassroots, which allows a free-hand to violators to grossly abuse vulnerable children without any fear of punishment.

The way ahead

More than across-the-line legal interventions, however, the real solution lies in nipping the issue in its bud. Resources must be directed to trace and monitor former school-attendees, dispense resources and provide counselling and guidance to avoid further drop-outs. Monetary help, as well as mid-day meal programmes also need to be established locally to encourage remote school enrolment, class-attendance and participation even during the pandemic.

Existing infrastructure needs to be optimised to prevent financial distress and digital divide from coming in the way of education. Help for orphans of the pandemic must also begin from tracking their numbers and cases, as a first. It is often that unsupported children go missing from records, falling utterly into destitution. Proper tracking and record-keeping will also ensure that new monetary and protective schemes get disbursed in a direct, monitored way, to avoid bottlenecks that come hand-in-glove with the involvement of corrupt middle-men.

The most effective change will come from balanced efforts from all three heads — the state, the market and the civil society. A complete prohibition on the employment of children in hazardous industries up to the age of 18 will do well with a comprehensive social security scheme for underprivileged children. This will guarantee financial support and forge a shared responsibility between the state and the parents in raising them. The private sector can also be roped in with the creation of child-labour-free-zones, offering unique financial incentives to non-hazardous industries in this mission, who often employ child labourers for their ‘cost-effectiveness’.

As our governments think and rethink lockdown measures, scheme policy interventions and grapple with whatever remains while also contemplating over what does not, it is time we, as a society collective, pay attention to our children on the brink of irreversible damage. As the world observes 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, we must vow to join our hands in the interest of innocence. We must lend our voices and efforts to our children who await amenities and comfort, wipe their tears and lull them to sleep, and together, knit for them sun-rays that promise a brighter tomorrow.

The writer is Managing Director, IPE Global