A charity worker waited patiently at a train station ready to receive 100 child workers who were headed home under India’s lockdown. He was speechless when 500 streamed off the train instead.
Abandoned by employers and packed with haste onto a special train carrying migrant workers home, the children poured onto the platform at Gaya in eastern India last week.
“That day at the station, everyone realised that there were thousands of trafficked children being sent back home as factories were closed and nobody was documenting this return,” the charity worker said.
Over the last two weeks, similar instances have been reported from Rajasthan to Assam to New Delhi, all states where children have been rescued and sent to quarantine centres.
India has launched multiple campaigns to check child labour in recent years, cracking down on factories where children are hired to make bangles, stitch shoes or sequins.
The vigilance has only driven the trade deeper underground, child rights campaigners say, with the scale now visible as fearful employers abandon or banish the children, many of whom were trafficked into illegal work.
Indian labour laws ban the employment of anyone aged under 15 but children are permitted to support family businesses outside of school hours. This provision is widely exploited by employers and human traffickers, child rights campaigners say.
With transport starting to resume after the strict lockdown, child workers are being sent back home by their employers, armed with fake identity documents, child rights campaigners say.
Some are accompanied by their traffickers and run the risk of being re-trafficked once business reopen, they add.
“Since the lockdown began, we have been worried about children trapped in workshops,” said Basant Haryana of the Child Rights Watch Group in the western city of Jaipur, where children are used to make popular handicrafts.
“We first spotted them queuing up for food and then when the lockdown eased, they were just put on private buses and sent home illegally. An opportunity to document them was lost.”
Haryana is a petitioner in a case filed in the High Court of Jaipur asking the state to rescue child workers during lockdown, citing examples of children who had been beaten and abandoned.
April’s death of a 12-year-old farm worker on a 100km trek home in lockdown spotlighted the plight of child workers, who the United Nations believe total some 10 million in India.
Children working in hazardous occupations are at higher risk now since no employer will reveal their identities and numbers as employing them is a criminal offence, said Puja Marwaha, CEO of charity Child Rights and You (CRY).
“Child protection services must be made part of essential services,” Marwaha said, adding that the government should make special efforts to track all children and their families.
In states such as Bihar, with more than 450,000 child workers, mechanisms are being put in place to map child workers.
“We are trying to track the children returning, especially those who are unaccompanied,” said Pramila Kumar, chairwoman of the Bihar State Commission for protection of child rights.
“This is an organised crime and we would like to ensure that the children who have returned home do not go back to work.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)