• Meghna Singh

The Rise of Child Labour during the Pandemic

Historical Background

Child labour has always been a thorn in India’s foot. The fact that India has a score of 3.05 out of 10 on the Child Labour Index speaks volumes on the long way our country has to go for eradicating this social menace.

But what could possibly be the cause for the prevalence of child labour in our country? An important reason for this is the way a certain section of the society, especially the impoverished one, perceive children. They consider children as a source of income. The child’s nourishment and overall development take a back seat here and the expectation is children should start earning for the household as early as possible. But what is more worrisome is that studies have indicated that the pandemic has set India back by decades in its fight against child labour.

Child Labour and the Situation Pre-Lockdown

India has the world’s largest school-age population. The country’s law prohibits child labour in any form prior to the age of 14 years and hazardous employment between the age of 14-18 years. Irrespective, India ranks 48th in the Child Labour Index and lies in “High Risk” category. However with the sincere efforts of several organizations such as Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Pratham Education Foundation the much needed awareness is spreading in the country regarding this heinous act. The trend of child labour had even subsided to some extent but this progress has been reversed due to the pandemic that has hit the country severely.

The Lockdown Effect

The nation-wide lockdown was an abrupt decision that the country was forced to take in the month of March to contain the pandemic. It led to a standstill in all economic activities. This had many wide reaching implications which will fully unfold in the coming years. But one of the most immediate and visible outcome of the lockdown was that the nation had to acknowledge the existence of a very important economic constituent called the “migrant worker”. An exorbitant number of daily wage workers were left stranded in the cities as their work came to a grinding halt. They had no means of livelihood suddenly. The situation soon morphed into a painful process of reverse migration of these labourers to their home towns even as they had no means to have food, pay rent or even travel. The rural areas in the beginning was fairly safe from the pandemic, but it struggled to absorb the huge workforce as employment opportunities were scant. In the days that followed the financial backbone of this already vulnerable section was completely broken with almost non-existent social security system.

Post Lockdown

Against this background, let us analyze the implications of lockdown on child labour.

With the lifting of the lockdown, labour forces started moving back to cities. But the economic activities will not resume to desirable levels any time soon as there is no visible respite from the pandemic. The demand for labourers and wages are adversely affected as industries are not in a position to afford labourers at the pre-Covid levels. At the same time the supply of labour also continues to be under pressure as the reverse migration is not fully reversed. This demand -supply - wage dynamics has given a fresh impetus to child labour. At lower wages, child labour becomes an attractive prospective for entrepreneurs who are otherwise trying to barely survive. Studies are showing a spurt in the migrant households sending their children to menial jobs in urban areas such as restaurants, mechanics centres, etc.

According to the Praxis: Institute of Participatory Practices, “It has become a challenging task to even differentiate whether children are involved in labour activities or not (in the present circumstances). Hazardous labour works such as match box making for small-scale businesses can also be run from home but the difficulty in identifying such labour leaves many children susceptible to exploitation.”

The need for financial assistance for the households below poverty line is at an all-time high in the current scenario. Children are seen as a stop-gap, cheap measure to fill the jobs left vacant by the labour workers. NGOs point to the fact that the real spike in child labour is yet to come. When economic activities begin accelerating there is a risk of returning migrant workers taking along children with them.

The authorities need to wake up to this post-lockdown reality with forceful and effective policies, in the absence of which child labour can become further entrenched in the Indian psyche.

Sources: New York Times, The Post, Indian Express, Yahoo Finance

~Meghna Singh