Thousands of stranded child workers cry for help amid India’s COVID-19 lockdown


The coronavirus lockdown has impacted around 40 million children from poor families in India. With 472 million children, India has the largest child population in the world, campaigners said.

Tens of thousands of them call helplines daily while thousands said they go to bed hungry as the government suddenly imposed a 21-day lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

The number includes those working in farms and fields in rural areas, as well as children who work as rag pickers in cities or sell balloons, pens and other knick-knacks at traffic lights.

Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, a Delhi-based charity that works with child labourers and street children, says the worst affected are the millions of homeless children who live in cities – on streets, under flyovers, or in narrow lanes and by lanes.

“During the lockdown everyone has been told to stay home. But what about the street children? Where do they go?” he asks.

According to one estimate, Delhi has more than 70,000 street children. But Mr Gupta says that number is really much higher.

And these children, he says, are usually very independent.

“They look for their own means of survival. This is the first time they need assistance.

“But they are not in the system and they are not easy to reach out to, especially in the present circumstances. Our charity workers cannot move around unless they have curfew passes,” he says.

And passes are hard to obtain, because charities like Chetna are not considered essential services.

So, Mr Gupta says, they have been using innovative ways to keep in touch with the children.

“Many of these children have mobile phones, and because they generally stay in groups, we send them messages or TikTok videos about how to keep safe and what precautions they must take.”

In return, he’s also been receiving video messages from the children, some of which he’s forwarded to me. They give a sense of the dread and uncertainty that has taken hold of their lives.

There are testimonies from worried children talking about their parents losing their jobs, wondering how they will pay the rent now or where would they find the money to buy rations?

Then, there are videos from children who have to fend for themselves.

In one of them, a boy who lives on the street says, “Sometimes people come and distribute food. I have no idea who they are, but it’s very little. We only get to eat once in two-three days.”

Because of the lockdown, he says, they are not even allowed to go fetch water or firewood. “I don’t know how we can survive like this? The government must help us,” he pleads.

The authorities say they are providing help – the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights has been distributing food to street children and vulnerable families in the Indian capital. In many other cities too, local governments and charities have been distributing food to children and homeless people.

But the scale of the problem is daunting.

Mr Gupta says since it’s a complete lockdown, the government must ensure that the children are fed three meals a day.

Then, there are those he describes as “invisible children, the ones who live away from the main roads, in areas that are not easily accessible”.

“There are thousands of them and we are still not reaching them,” he says. (Source: BBC)