The coronavirus pandemic has sharpened the edge of all inequalities. No one has felt the weight of its blow more than India’s children, the majority of whom have been pushed out of digital-only classrooms. The most fragile of them are at the risk of falling through the cracks. An investigation by this newspaper has tracked this unfolding tragedy — with schools shut and families in dire economic straits, children are being yanked out of the safety of homes, and being forced into child labour, early marriages, or being trafficked to sweatshops and brothels. The national helpline for children in distress, Childline, saw 1.92 lakh interventions between March and August, and 27 lakh distress calls — even during a period when large parts of the country were locked down. Over 10,000 cases of child marriage were recorded between April and August, with the perceived economic liability of girls leaving them more defenceless. The children are likely to be at greater peril, not less, in the coming months. As the economy unlocks, labour contractors will be stalking desperately impoverished villages for cheap labour.
In the face of such an enormous challenge, the state remains slow-footed. Despite advisories from the Ministry of Home Affairs to create a network of anti-human trafficking units to tackle the lockdown surge, several states — including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Mizoram and Nagaland — have not set up even one. In the void left by the state, child rights organisations, teachers and communities have stepped in. In West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas, for example, a headmaster has put together an informal network of girl students who warn him about children being married off. Not every warning leads to a rescue. For every child saved, activists say, many more fall prey to trafficking cartels. Before the pandemic struck, equality in the classroom or the anganwadi was a work in progress. Social institutions remain harshest towards the poor, the lower-caste child and the first-generation learner — even if there is slow, incremental progress in many of these areas, from literacy to malnutrition to the education of the girl child. The pandemic’s shock has only deepened each of those fault lines. The state’s already questionable capacity for delivering public goods has been enfeebled, leaving vast sections of the Indian population, from workers left stranded in cities to small businesses keeling over as the economy contracts, at the mercy of chance.
Each child lost to this cycle of distress adds up to an inter-generational deficit of learning, opportunity and well-being that will set back communities by decades. It is a battle on many fronts, but not one which this country can afford to lose. State governments must press the alarm button, and activate the bureaucracy at district, block and village levels to monitor dropout rates, ensure relief to families and involve the police and civil society to stop this silent exodus of children.
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