AS THE pandemic struck, and the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, the country woke up to countless images of migrant workers returning to their villages with their children, on cycles, buses, lorries and trains, many walking hundreds of kilometres. But as the economic distress began to sink in, a more sinister movement of children gathered pace — of those being taken away from their homes for illegal labour, trafficking and forced marriages.
The crisis led to a spike in “interventions” where officials or aid workers stepped in to rescue children in distress, and exposed an ill-equipped government apparatus with too many holes to stem the flow, let alone prevent it, an investigation of Childline data obtained by The Indian Express has found.
Consider some of the key findings:
# Between March and August, officials manning 1098, the national childline for distress calls set up by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, tracked 1.92 lakh interventions on the ground. During the same period last year, the number was 1.70 lakh.
# In those six months, the childline received 27 lakh distress calls. Officials who logged 36 lakh calls in the same period last year are alarmed because they had expected the numbers to fall sharply this year due to the nationwide curbs on movement.
# Between April and August, officials tracked over 10,000 cases of child marriage.
# And, although government guidelines mandate at least 50 per cent police districts in each state to have Anti-Human Trafficking Units, several key states, including UP and Maharashtra, have fallen far short.
So much so, that on July 6, the Union Home Ministry issued a desperate appeal to states in a note that described the unfolding tragedy. “Children and youth are more likely to be persuaded or tricked by criminals who take advantage of their emotional instability and missing support system. Once trafficked, the victims fall prey to many forms of unfair treatment such as forced prostitution, forced labour, forced begging, forced marriages, etc,” it said.
“The number of ground interventions is higher, effectively indicating that more children are in distress,” said a senior official of Childline India Foundation, the agency in charge for setting up, monitoring and managing the Ministry’s distress service.
The Indian Express also spoke to several rescuers who narrated harrowing accounts —from the dramatic rescue of ten children from three buses in Rajasthan to a 15-year-old girl who attempted suicide to avoid marriage in West Bengal but was still married off after she survived.
But nothing illustrates the challenge better than an intervention reported from South Parganas in West Bengal where Chandan Maity, an anti-trafficking activist and headmaster of the Krishnachandrapur High School, came across a Class 9 student who was forced to marry her classmate.
With the school shut, the boy was asked to work on a fishing boat for Rs 160 a day and two Hilsa fish. Days later, he went missing after the boat capsized. “There is a local custom that for seven years the girl has to wear a white saree as a widow and pray every day for her husband to return. I counselled both families, and brought the girl back to the school,” Maity said.
The interventions include at least 32,700 cases of trafficking, child marriage, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, begging and cyber crime. “Between April and August, Childline intervened in 10,000-plus child marriage cases…most of these marriages were prevented. The number is significant considering the lockdown restrictions, with lack of permission for social gatherings and functions,” another official said.
That’s not all. With industries, factories and businesses shut, child labour “should have been close to nothing”. “And yet, between March and August, Childline dealt with 6,800 interventions related to child labour,” the official said.
Like in Rajasthan’s Udaipur on July 23. Around 6.30 pm that day, rescuers and police received a tip-off that ten children had been spotted “with telltale signs of trafficking” on three buses that had left from Gogunda block for Surat and Rajkot. The team rescued two children from the first bus and two more from the second. “An hour later, the third bus came but there wasn’t a single child in it,” said Santosh Poonia of Ajeevika Bureau who was part of the team.
“The driver had been alerted and he had got the kids in an auto, which was waiting at a spot further away. We found the six children with an agent,” Poonia said. “With schools shut, their parents had sent them to work. They were to be employed as kitchen hands in hostels or hotels or dhabas.”
The next few months will be crucial, say officials and rescuers, as the economy opens up and industries look for cheap labour.
“Trafficking from villages back to cities has started in earnest. From August 12 to September-end, we were able to stop 78 buses, and 300 children from getting trafficked. There are many more who are coming with their parents…many of these children used to attend school in their villages (before the lockdown),” said Dhananjay Tingal, the executive director of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), founded by Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi.
According to BBA, their activists in association with law agencies aided in the rescue of 823 children between March 24 to September 2, several from trains.
One of them was from the Old Delhi railway station on September 7, when rescuers intercepted the Mahananda Express and found a 14-year-old boy with 13 other children being brought to work in sewing units. From Kishanganj in Bihar, he was the son of a daily wage farm labourer, and had five other siblings. “The trafficker took advantage of their poverty and lured the parents into sending their child to work,” said a BBA official.
But then, not many stories end the way they should.
In Bengal, headmaster Maity attempted another rescue where the family of a priest, left with no income in the lockdown, was set to conduct the marriage of his 15-year-old daughter. In August, Maity travelled to the village in Mathurapur to stop the marriage and counsel the family. “Despite my attempts, the girl, who is a good student, was taken to her maternal uncle’s home for the marriage. But she drank poison and was hospitalised. The family did not tell anyone, and in their desperation, still got her married,” he said.
(With Ritika Chopra)
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