Why The Pandemic Is A Child Rights Emergency In India

18 Jun 2021 14 min read  Share

While Covid-19 orphans have dominated mainstream discourse, India’s children silently face an epidemic of other vulnerabilities, including hunger, the loss of school, early marriage and trafficking for sex. How child rights are being rolled back by decades.

Photographs for representation purpose only/PROTSAHAN INDIA FOUNDATION

New Delhi: The first hint that something was out of place was when Saraswati Pagade, a team member of YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action) Navi Mumbai Childline noticed a surge in the number of children begging at the traffic light near her office at Kharghar in Maharashtra’s Raigad district. 

“There is so much hunger here,” said Pagade. “There is no money for food.” On the 1098 Childline number that YUVA attends to, calls reporting children begging and child labour have shot up since Covid’s catastrophic second wave in May, she said.


More than 1,100 km to the north in Jaipur, Rajasthan, siblings 10-year-old Abid* and his elder brother Zahid, 12, began working in a glass bangle factory two months after their father, a daily wage labourer, died of Covid-like symptoms—he was never medically diagnosed or treated—in April 2020 in Dhanarua Block, Patna, Bihar.


The boys had been studying in class 3 and 5, when schools shut and their father died.  With the loss of the family’s sole-earning member, the children were sent to work. Just as the second wave was beginning to explode, the brothers were rescued by a local NGO and reunited with their mother in April this year, said Suresh Kumar, executive director, Centre DIRECT, a Patna-based NGO that helps rebuild the life of trafficked children.


“Trafficking has shot up,” Kumar said. Identifying vulnerable children—who lost a father, whose family took a loan for medical treatment, stretched credit at the kirana store—is easy for traffickers who rely on a network of local informers, including neighbours. Even if children are rescued and united with their families, their vulnerability often makes it simply a matter of time before they are re-trafficked again, said Kumar.


In the 40 years since it was founded in 1980 by Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on child rights, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) has rescued 102,302 children—an average of just over 2,500 a year—who have been trafficked for labour or sexual exploitation, sold as bonded labour or otherwise forced to work in contravention of India’s laws.


From January 2020 to 16 June 2021, BBA has with various government agencies rescued 10,417 children, said Rakesh Senger, executive director, Kailash Satyarthi Foundation, a sister organisation of BBA.


At the start of the pandemic in India, as many as 4,334 children were rescued from just one state, Telangana; 3,110 from Uttar Pradesh and 546 from Andhra Pradesh. 


The real picture might emerge only weeks from now after lockdowns by various states are lifted, and traffickers find it easier to transport children from their villages to work in factories and fields. “That’s when we’ll really know,” warned Senger.


Looking at the past weeks’ headlines on social media as well as the mainstream press, it would seem as if India’s children face just one insurmountable crisis, that of losing their parents in Covid’s deadly second wave. It began with earnest and apparently well-meaning messages on social media, including Whatapp, running more or less on the same lines: parents dead due to Covid, orphan children were available for adoption.


A clarification from the ministry of women and child development that these adoption notices were illegal, brought an end to the messages. Nevertheless, media imagination had been ignited and there was a welter of stories, including in the international press (see here and here).


Suddenly, the range of vulnerabilities faced by children ever since the pandemic began upending lives from March 2020—school closures, an inability to access online learning due to existing digital gaps, early marriage, child labour, trafficking for labour and sex work, mental trauma, anxiety and fear—was subsumed by just one hashtag: #CovidOrphans.


On 29 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a slew of welfare measures for Covid orphans, children who had lost both parents to Covid. These included ensuring a corpus of Rs 10 lakh when they turned 18 and providing for their education.


Welfare schemes for Covid orphans by various states were trotted out in quick succession. On 12 June, Rajasthan announced an ex gratia of Rs 100,000 and monthly financial assistance as part of its Corona Baal Kalyan Yojana. In Tamil Nadu, ex gratia was pegged at Rs 500,000 per child who had lost both parents. The Odisha government said it would bear the educational expenses of all Covid orphans. Telangana has promised smartphones uploaded with emergency numbers. And in Maharashtra, the government is chalking up plans for the education and financial assistance of such children.  


“In every national calamity there is an ex gratia payment,” said Mumbai-based lawyer Maharukh Adenwalla, who works on socio-legal issues with a focus on child rights.  “This is very welcome. But there are any number of children who are not orphaned yet require urgent assistance to continue their lives without disruption.”


Objecting to the term “Covid orphan” for stigmatizing children, Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights agreed. “The hashtag provides a new, convenient branding that tugs at the heartstrings,” she said. “While it is devastating for children to lose their parents, malnutrition, hunger, school dropouts, and early marriage are the hard problems confronting India’s children. What are we doing about these?”


Nicole Rangel Menezes, co-founder of Leher, an NGO that works on child rights added: “As tragic as it is when children lose their parents, when you make it all about Covid orphans, you make it very convenient for the state because then it doesn’t have to talk about all the other vulnerabilities that children are facing because of Covid. The loss of livelihood, the fact that schools are shut and there is no incentive to go back to school. These problems don’t come with nice hashtags, but they exist all the same.”


Trafficking To Transactional Sex: Vulnerabilities Of India’s Children

On 15 June, BBA along with the Anti Human Trafficking Unit at Rajkot received a tip-off that 18 children, aged between 15 and 17, were working in sari processing units. The children had been trafficked from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and had been put to work for over 12 hours a day in units with poor ventilation and hygiene. When they were rescued, it turned out that two of the children had been working for the past one year while the rest had been recruited in the past four months, said Senger.


Child labour among vulnerable communities has increased by nearly 280% during the pandemic, according to a Campaign Against Child Labour study of 28 districts in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, quoted in the Hindu. Of 818 children interviewed for the survey, 553 children were going to school pre-pandemic. After schools shut down, 419 of those 553 began working.

The closure of 1.5 million schools because of the pandemic has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. Pre-pandemic, Census 2011 pegged child labour at 10 million out of a total population of 259.6 million children aged between 5-14.


In February 2021, union minister Prakash Javadekar told Parliament that no child had been deprived of an online education during the pandemic. “Nobody was deprived of education and online education,” he said.


The statement belies what many activists on the ground know. Only 30% of the rural population has internet access and 65% in larger cities; just 35% of internet users are female, only 21% are internet mobile users, finds GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report, 2020.


With kids at home and many unable to access online classes, adult livelihoods lost and illness expenses mounting, more and more children are being put to work.


See our earlier story: The New Child Brides of India’s Covid-19 Pandemic


Sonal Kapoor who founded Protsahan India Foundation, dedicated to eradicating child abuse, confirmed that transactional sex was up in the 48 Delhi slums where her organisation worked. 

“Mothers who used to work as domestic workers are out of jobs,” said Kapoor. “And children are being pushed into two hours of sex work so that they can come back with a five-kilo bag of rice or wheat flour.” One mother, she said, told her that to feed her four children, she had to sacrifice one.


Cases of incest are also up, she said. While conducting a survey on adolescent girls in Delhi slums, the organisation came across a 13-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her father. As the lockdown opened and the mother went back to work in the factory where she was employed, she began taking her 13-year-old daughter with her, rather than leave her alone at home with the father. 


Protsahan works with about 16,000 adolescents. Of the 650 most vulnerable child protection cases it is handling, only four are orphans. The vast majority are those facing sexual exploitation, hunger and hazardous labour, Kapoor said. 



The link between Covid and child labour is easy to spot. Even where a parent has not died, an illness might have resulted in families taking out loans at high rates of interest. These have to be paid back, and sometimes the only way to do it is to send a child to work, for instance, in the potato fields of Punjab. 

Illness due to Covid has also led to loss of livelihood by adults. Cut off from school, the children are doing what they can to supplement meagre household incomes.


The reverse migration of labour from cities back to villages has also resulted in more mouths to feed in families. Not everyone is registered or eligible for jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and there is no big income generation scheme for returning migrants, said Senger. In slums, most do not have Aadhar and ration cards to avail of government schemes, added Kapoor.


When the 2020 lockdown lifted, it seemed safer to return to towns and cities in search of work. But savings had been depleted and women were forced to sell or mortgage whatever gold they might have owned. Others took loans. Then, the second wave struck with catastrophic consequences.


“The second wave made it worse. Girls are especially vulnerable and we are predicting that they would be trafficked to work as domestic helpers or for sex work in massage parlours,” said Senger.


Traffickers are smarter too: Using luxury buses and even flights to escape the scrutiny of the railways; getting at least one parent to accompany the children being bused out; registering online with placement agencies that offer a range of services from domestic work to massage parlours; using trafficked children as recruitment agents to rope in even more vulnerable children, said Senger.


“The state tends to concentrate on children who are out of the family network,” said Maharukh Adenwalla. “There is a lot of concern about orphaned children, those without parents or those within institutions. But the child situated within the family is ignored.”


What, for instance, happens to a child whose father loses his job and has to move out of his rented dwelling to a basti? What happens to the child when there is no food for two meals? “I’m happy the state is concerned about Covid orphans, but the story does not end there. You have to recognize that there are different types of vulnerability that children are facing,” said Adenwalla.


The Hunger Pandemic

Most calls that come through the 1098 Childline helpline run by YUVA, an NGO headquartered in Kharghar, billed as the “smart city” of Navi Mumbai, are pleas for food, said Vijay Kharat, the centre coordinator. “There is widespread loss of livelihood and no food in the house,” he said. There is a desperate need for dry rations and medical assistance.


The shortage of food and widespread hunger is caused by a loss of jobs. Mothers who worked as domestic helpers have been laid off, and so have fathers who earned as daily wage labourers. Savings, such as they were, had already been depleted during the first wave. Now there is simply nothing.


 YUVA is currently undertaking a survey of vulnerable families and trying to connect them with various existing government schemes including the Bal Sangopan Yojana, a 2008 scheme by the Maharashtra government that helps students continue with their education when families are in distress.


“In all cases so far that we have seen where children have lost a parent due to Covid, they are being looked after by their families,” said Kharat. In one case, for instance, the father died of cancer in September 2020 and the mother of Covid in March this year, leaving behind twin girls aged about 12.

The girls now live with their maternal uncle and his family. “The uncle is happy to look after the girls,” said Kharat. “He says, if he gets money from a government scheme it will be helpful. But, if not, he can still bring them up on his own.”


But times are hard. In Taloja, the death of the sole earning member of the family, the father, a canteen worker in March this year, left his wife with two children aged three and one. A trained beautician, the wife had already lost her job. And although the family lives in a single room that belongs to the husband’s brother, the brother has made it clear that he is prepared to waive rent for only so long. 

“We have given her emergency rations and have linked her children to Bal Sangonpan Yojana and her to a widow’s pension scheme,” said Pagade of YUVA. “Right now families are not always in a position to help. They say, they have to look out for their own kids.”


The onset of the second wave sent employment rates plummeting killing the hope that employment would pick up in the first quarter of the year. A combination of partial lockdowns, the economy failing to generate adequate jobs, and a lean agricultural season—6 million job losses in the agricultural sector in April 2021 alone—saw labour participation rates for April 2021 fall to 39.98%, the lowest since May 2020, according to Mahesh Vyas, managing director, Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE). The numbers of those unemployed but looking for work swelled from 6.2 million in March to 33.9 million in April.


Reversing Gains In Gender And Child Rights

Between 1 April 2020 and 5 June 2021, NCPCR told the Supreme Court in an affidavit, 30,071 children had either lost both parents, or one, or been abandoned. Of these, 23,147 had lost one parent and were living with the sole surviving parent, 3,138 with extended family and 2,409 with a guardian. Only 928 of these children, 3.1%, had been institutionalized at children homes, shelters and orphanages.


These figures, say child rights experts, is likely an underestimation, given that official numbers of the dead have been severely under-counted. In just one state, Madhya Pradesh, for instance, data journalist Rukmini S reckoned there were three times as many deaths as usually recorded in April and May.


The catastrophic second wave saw a surge of untested, undocumented and unmonitored infections and deaths particularly in rural India where 800 million, or 65% of the population lives.


See Related Story: Undocumented Tide of Death Overwhelms Rural India as Cities Stabilise


“In this country we have a culture where the community looks after its own children,” said Haq’s Enakshi Ganguly. “Communities and families are not always ideal, but they are certainly better than institutions that house children.”


India stands at reversing painfully-won gains in gender and child rights. Kailash Satyarthi warned that the levels of child labour have already breached the two decade mark. At risk are the most vulnerable children in terms of socio-economic status and caste. Grassroots workers are sounding the alarm on health, nutrition, immunization, education, protection and early marriage. 

“There is just a huge setback on all development parameters,” said Roshni Nuggehalli, executive director of YUVA. “We need to look at all these issues holistically and not through a bandaid solution for Covid orphans.”


One solution is to set up district level, local task forces to track and monitor possible rollbacks, as is being done in Maharashtra. “Strengthen mechanisms such as foster care that already exist in our laws but have not been developed at all,” said Nuggehalli.


Put in place community protection committees that would comprise adults, youth and prominent local citizens, school teachers for instance, she added. These committees, closest to the child, would be tasked with monitoring child rights and identifying all vulnerable children and linking them to systems. 


Put money in the pockets of marginalized families struggling to cope, said Leher’s Nicole Rangel Menezes. Families where both parents were alive are still experiencing loss of livelihood, fear and anxiety about the future, said Menezes. 

“Children are being put to work or forced into early marriage. Relationships have become toxic. Substance abuse has gone up. We need to strengthen our distribution systems, increase rations through the public distribution system and create systemic solutions,” said Menezes. “It’s just common sense.”


Maharukh Adenwalla said there could not be a one-size-fits-all solution. “For each case there has to be a needs assessment. Different families have different needs,” said Adenwalla. “Recognise different types of vulnerabilities that go beyond Covid orphans.”


*In keeping with India’s laws and our own policy, all names of minor children have been changed.


(Namita Bhandare writes on gender issues and is on the editorial board of Article 14.)