Motihari: Four and a half years ago when Mala’s boy, Vinit* was rescued from a jeans factory in Delhi where he was forced to work as bonded child labour, hopes ran high.
Mala had never thought she would see her eldest child again after he disappeared at age nine with a group of older kids in July 2016 from their village, 25 km from Motihari in East Champaran district of Bihar. Just setting eyes on him would have been enough.
But all these years later, the son of daily wage labourers still awaits the financial rehabilitation and other schemes promised to him by law. Under the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourer 2016, Vinit is entitled to compensation of anything between Rs 200,000 and Rs 300,000 upon conviction of his employer. The scheme also provides for immediate cash assistance before trial.
But the trial of Vinit’s erstwhile employer has yet to begin. And until there’s a conviction, he cannot get the financial compensation he is entitled to.
The cheque of Rs 20,000, as interim payout, handed to him in 2017 after his rescue, could not be deposited in the bank due to a name mismatch.
The Covid pandemic has made the family’s precarious financial situation worse. In fact, across India, with schools shut, rampant unemployment and savings depleted, child rights organisations are reporting a surge in child trafficking. Activists have flagged several cases of trafficking and rescues.
A study, based on the responses of 53 NGOs and 245 households from trafficking-prone states—Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan—indicated very high risks of bonded child labour post pandemic.
Around 93% of NGOs were of the view that the extent of child labour would increase in the post-lockdown period. The study, titled Impact of Lockdown and Economic Disruption on Low-Income Households with Special Reference to Children, was conducted in April-May 2020, by the Kailash Satyarthi Children Foundation, a US-registered outfit that aims to eradicate child labour and exploitation.
Based on this study, in June 2020, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a nonprofit campaigning for child rights and headed by Kailash Satyarthi, filed a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking directions to the Centre to frame policies or guidelines to prevent child trafficking amidst the pandemic.
A bench headed by then Chief Justice S A Bobde issued notice to the central government to frame guidelines. The matter is pending before the court.
Vinit is not an exception.
Among 38,503 trafficking victims, children as well as adults, identified in India between 2010 and 2018, financial compensation was awarded to only 102—less than 1%, according to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report by the United States Department of State.
“Judges could order compensation to trafficking victims through a variety of government schemes, usually funded by the central government and administered at the state level, but rarely did so,” found the report.
Since 2016, when the rehabilitation scheme came into effect, not a single case has received compensation in Delhi, said Arshad Mehdi, one of the coordinators at BBA, who has led many of their rescue operations.
Mala had gone into labour with her fifth child when her eldest child, Vinit, disappeared along with some other boys in the village.
This was back in July 2016. “Roya kanha par gelai gaanv bhar me; aanch na jarlai kaye din (A gloom had spread over the entire village; we didn’t light the stove for many days),” recounted Mala, speaking in the Bajjika dialect of Maithili.
Nobody knew where the boys had disappeared and many feared the worst. Some thought the children had been killed; others guessed they had been kidnapped by a begging syndicate. Perhaps they ran away to act in movies. Regardless of the speculation, the general consensus in the village was that Mala would never see her son again.
Then four months later in November, Vinit called. “Maai re…”, he said as Mala slumped down to the floor.
“Maai re, neeman baade (Are you well, Mother)?” Mala heard her son ask.
“Babu re! Where are you? Why did you run away?”
“I ran away with other boys. I’m...”
As both started to cry, Vinit hung up abruptly.
Mala waited, but he didn’t call again. In February 2017, Mala received another call: Her son had been rescued from a factory in Delhi.
In the village, Vinit used to hang out with older children—his cousin and neighbours. In July 2016, some of the older boys were talking about going to Delhi with a young man who had offered them jobs at a jeans factory.
Vinit, only 9 at the time, wanted to join the group. The older boys snubbed him, but their prospective employer was encouraging. “Dilli ghoomayenge, hawai jahaj dikhayenge (I’ll take you around Delhi and show you airplanes),” Vinit recounts him saying. Other promises were made about living in a big house, playing in a park, eating sweets, and watching movies on a large TV.
In his own village these were distant dreams.
Vinit comes from the Nonia community, categorised as one of over 150 Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) in Bihar. EBCs account for around 25 per cent of the population and form a crucial vote bank in Bihar’s caste-centric politics. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has made several attempts at wooing the EBCs, including repeating a recommendation to include Nonias in the Scheduled Tribe category. The union government rejected this proposal in March.
Vinit’s parents are daily wage labourers. His father works in a brick kiln and during the off season, migrates to Punjab to work as an agricultural labourer. He spends most of his earnings on alcohol. His mother cleans cattle sheds for others and does small farm jobs. They own no land. As the oldest of six siblings, Vinit, at age 9, felt the pressure to earn.
To Vinit, working in Delhi didn’t sound bad at all. Also, his older friends were going. It seemed like a bit of a picnic. So when they left, he tagged along.
Once in Delhi, Vinit was put to work at a factory that manufactured jeans in Seelampur in north east Delhi.
The factory received stitched jeans and did the job of finishing and packaging the product. Vinit, the youngest, had the job of cutting extra thread from ready-to-wear jeans while older boys did the more intricate work of fixing buttons and tags and packing the jeans.
The day Vinit spoke to his mother on the phone, he hadn’t hung up. His employer had asked him to call his mother to tell her that he and the other boys were being taken care of. When Vinit began crying after hearing his mother’s voice, “The owner hurled a hammer at me. It hit me here,” he said, rubbing his knee.
This was just one of several abuses that Vinit underwent in Delhi.
The factory owner treated the boys as his property. One owner would sell the children to another, and children would be moved from one factory to another.
At the age of nine, Vinit became a bonded labourer.
Life After Rescue
Vinit was rescued on 2 February 2017 in a much-publicised operation by the North East Delhi district police task force.
All 26 children rescued from two jeans factories in Seelampur were from the East Champaran district. From Vinit’s village, there were 13 boys—10 from Dalit families and three from EBC families.
The National Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognizance of the case, expressing concern over the cruelty of the employers and failure of the administration. It issued notices to the chief secretary, government of NCT of Delhi and the Delhi police commissioner about the steps taken for relief and rehabilitation of these boys.
Today Vinit is 14. Four and a half years after the boys’ rescue, the Delhi government is yet to begin the summary trial -- allowed under law for speedy disposal of cases, for certain specific cases. This has delayed the financial compensation that Vinit is legally entitled to as a former bonded child labourer. With the pandemic increasing the risk of re-trafficking, the compensation could go a long way in preventing that.
Rescued child labourers are issued a release certificate by the government. The document is mandatory in order to access rehabilitation schemes.
But most rescued child labourers find it extremely hard to secure this all-important document. District officials, keen to wash their hands off any responsibility, are loath to identify them as bonded labourers. Or, if they do, delay the process of issuing the certificates. In this case, fortunately, the children were identified as bonded labourers and provided with release certificates.
Vinit’s release certificate is dated 10 March 2017, and is signed by the sub divisional magistrate of District North East Delhi.
But, a release certificate is only just the first step.
To get the monetary compensation of anything between Rs 200,000 and Rs 300,000 under the 2016 rehabilitation scheme, Vinit’s employer would first have to be convicted. But the scheme also has a provision for immediate cash assistance, even before the trial.
Vinit and the other children received two installments of Rs 20,000 each. The first was a direct cash transfer to their bank accounts and the second was a cheque.
But Vinit couldn’t cash his cheque since the name on it didn’t match the one on his release certificate. His mother has held on to the 2017 cheque in the hope that she would be able to cash it once officials solve the problem.
Another boy in the village couldn’t access the money for the same reason.
The 2016 scheme also mandates government support to rescued bonded labourers though various schemes: Allotment of land for a house or agriculture, low cost housing, social security pension, animal husbandry projects, free ration under the public distribution scheme, jobs under MNREGA, and, crucially for children, education. These schemes aren’t linked to the outcome of the trial. All that is needed is evidence of a rescue through a release certificate that clearly identifies a child as former bonded labour.
Vinit’s mother spreads out the applications she’s filed in the last four years from social security pension to allotment of agricultural land, from housing under Indira Awas Yojana to financial assistance. No benefits have come through as of now.
Soon after the childrens’ rescue, BBA, which provided shelter for the children before they could be sent back home, wrote to the district magistrate of East Champaran to facilitate Vinit’s enrolment back in school. But, none of the rescued children have been offered help. Three of the 13 have, however, managed to go back to school of their own effort.
India has a slew of laws under which the employer could be convicted: Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 (BLSA) and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. These laws prescribe imprisonment of up to three and five years respectively. Additionally, Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 and Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 are applicable and these carry jail terms of upto two and five years.
One avenue for speedy justice for the children is a summary trial, a legal provision to expedite trial by simplifying the process and empowering an official, outside the criminal justice system, to hold the trial . The BLSA empowers an executive magistrate with the powers of a lower court judge to hold the summary trial. Under the Act, a summary trial must begin as soon as the rescue is done, and definitely no later than the issuing of the release certificate. The idea is to deliver justice as speedily as possible.
But, the country has seen very few summary trials conducted by district magistrates or their subordinate officers since they are not aware of the procedure to conduct one, notes a 2018 handbook on bonded labour published by the National Human Rights Commission.
Without a summary trial, Vinit and the other boys cannot expect the financial compensation they are entitled to, said Mehdi of BBA.
In fact, barring two, summary trials haven’t started in any bonded child labour case in Delhi so far. Even those two —one in South East and the other in South West districts—haven’t reached a judgement, said Mehdi.
“The Delhi government is not running any summary trials. We’ve gone to court over this issue. Despite our active advocacy, the government doesn’t seem interested,” said Mehdi.
Activists had huge hopes from the 2016 scheme. “I thought it would end trafficking. But, no great success has been achieved. Payment of immediate monetary assistance of Rs 20,000 and, in some cases, employer’s compensation of another Rs 20,000, has been the only achievement so far,” Mehdi said.
In a telephonic conversation, an official at the sub divisional magistrate (Seelampur), North East District, Delhi refused to comment on the reason behind the delay in summary trials. The offices of the district collector and the SDM are yet to respond to email queries.
This case seemed to be progressing well initially, said Digvijay Kumar, director of a Motihari-based non-profit called IDEA. “But, the Delhi government came under the pressure from businessmen who profit out of bonded child labour. This is why they have stalled the process.”
The boys’ chances of securing a rehabilitation package are not great, going by the data.
First, conviction rates are very low.
In 2019, law enforcement reported 1,155 cases of bonded labour under the BLSA, an increase from 778 cases in 2018.
But, the conviction rate dropped sharply. In 2019, officials convicted 52 persons in 33 cases under the BLSA, a sharp decrease from 2018 when 331 persons were convicted in 198 cases.
Second, judges rarely award compensation to trafficking victims. Between 2010 and 2018 just one per cent were awarded compensation.
For rescued bonded labourers, the greatest risk is of re-trafficking. The US report cites an unnamed NGO, working in 10 states, that more than 60 percent of released victims were subjected to bonded labour again.
Re-trafficking is widely prevalent, said Mehdi. “Most rescued children go back to work, sometimes to other destinations. Covid has only made it worse; a lot of children have left post paddy sowing season and more will be leaving after Durga Puja.”
Kumar said he witnesses this here too. “A lot of people are re-trafficked, sometimes to the same jobs. This happens due to lack of livelihood options post rescue, as well as absence of stringent penalties for the trafficker.”
This belt of Bihar has long been a trafficking-prone area, said Kumar. “But, Covid-19 has made it worse. It has pushed families into further poverty, making them easier targets for traffickers. Several trafficking rings are active in this region. We are witnessing increased activity after mass job losses caused by the pandemic.”
Vinit’s father saw a slow down last year in construction jobs where he works as a labourer. Also, last year, no labourers from his village could go to Punjab for agricultural work due to travel restrictions.
“I lost income,” says Vinit’s father. “This year, when the lockdown ended, we went to Punjab. But, we had less than two weeks of work.”
Recent floods have been even more damaging—the village was flooded three times between June and August. The family, like most others in this ‘low caste’ colony, had to take shelter in a school. When the water receded, they lived on the verandahs of neighbours who have pucca houses. “I have spent many sleepless nights worrying about whether my family will have shelter tomorrow,” said Mala, Vinit’s mother.
Post rescue, Vinit had rejoined school. Now that the pandemic has forced the schools to shut down, he has no plans of going back. Vinit tags along with his mother on daily wage jobs. For a day of agricultural labour during paddy season, he earns either 4 kg of paddy—which makes about 2 kg of rice, which doesn’t last a day for his family of eight.
Madan, who was rescued along with Vinit, is also awaiting compensation. He comes from a Dalit family, with a disabled mother unable to work. His father is a daily wage labourer. The roof of their house fell down a couple of years ago and they had no money to fix it. They have been staying with a relative. The recent floods did more damage and their house needs complete rebuilding.
“If I get the compensation, I’ll rebuild the house for my mother. It’s my duty as her eldest child,” he says.
The stories of families of other rescued children in this village are similar. Every family has lost income. The pandemic has put many of their family members out of work and caused loss of income from seasonal migration. This has put them in severe economic stress.
The older children—some turned 18 last year—are hard pressed for jobs.
These children, who underwent severe torture and abuse during their last stint in Delhi, are still traumatised. When I visited them during the first wave of Covid-19 in November 2020, many of them told me that they were afraid to leave their village for jobs. At that time, two children were working in neighbouring villages.
But, the pandemic-induced job crisis has left them with fewer options besides migrating to a big city. Now, some of the rescued children have been re-trafficked to cities, says Kumar. “More would meet this fate if they don’t receive help soon.”
The ones still in the village are confounded. They are hoping that the government would help them set up small businesses—animal rearing, tailoring shops, motorcycle mechanic shops, etc—as part of their rehabilitation. These are skills they’ve learnt with assistance from Kumar’s NGO IDEA.
IDEA has provided them with ration kits and small monetary assistance during the pandemic. But, this is not enough to avoid re-trafficking, says Kumar. “A compensation of Rs 200,000-300,000 could transform the fortunes of these low income families.”
There is some renewed hope among the boys since officials from the district administration collected documents from them all over again, in July and August. “He has assured me of some support under various government schemes. I’m hoping the help arrives soon,” says one of the rescued boys.
“If the government pays me compensation, I would open a general store,” says Vinit. “I would not need to go away from home and worry my Maai again.”
*Under Indian law and Article 14’s own editorial policy, minor children may not be named and their names have been changed.
(Monica Jha is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.)