Author: Antima Tiwari New Law College, BVDU, Pune
“There can be no revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela
The world is facing a health crisis that has put the lives of people all over on a halt. The crisis has dispatched a heavy blow to the livelihoods of a significant population across the globe. It is no surprise that this health crisis has turned into a humanitarian crisis specifically affecting the most vulnerable sections of the society i.e. our children. Children, as we all know, are the national asset of any country and require due care and protection at all times.
India, too, has been under lockdown for the past 3 months now. With the advent of lockdown, there has been a sudden increase in violence against children and their well-being has been ignored. According to reports, about 1.5 billion children will drop out of school due to this pandemic. Research conducted by an NGO in India had concluded that malnutrition in India continues to be at its highest point with 42.5% of children being underweight.
The COVID-19 situation will leave millions of children in a much more perilous situation, needing immediate steps to protect and safeguard them.
ARE OUR CHILDREN PROTECTED?
India does have well-defined and well-protected laws for the preservation of the rights of children. Likewise, Article 15(3) of the constitution talks about giving special provisions to children; Article 23 and 24 talks about the prohibition of trafficking and prohibition of child labour respectively; Article 39(e) and 39(f) which secures the tender age of children; Article 45 which talks about safeguarding the early childhood and so on. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Child Labour Adolescent Regulation Act, Bonded Labour Act, and the Juvenile Justice Act talks about various issues related to the children and their protection. Internationally, India has ratified approximately 45 international labour conventions and one protocol, the ILO conventions 138 and 182 allows a distinction to be made as to what constitutes an acceptable and unacceptable form of work for children.
According to the above facts, one can see how India has policies, guidelines and provisions for the betterment of children. As unfortunate as it might sound but the truth is that the government has failed to implement these provisions, more so in the most crucial times. But the question which arises is, despite all the provisions, what will be the real impact of the current crisis on children across the country?
EFFECT OF CORONAVIRUS ON CHILDREN
In a recent report by UNICEF, it was found that about 6000 children around the world have been dying every day because of the lack of food, proper health, sanitation measures; the Covid-19 is further devastating the situation.
The lockdown has impacted children worldwide as 77% of children living in 132 countries have been severely suffering because of the restriction imposed by the governments. India, with 472 Million children is considered to have the largest child population across the world. The sudden lockdown imposed in March 2020 impacted about 40 Million children most of them belonging to poor families due to direct and indirect economic impact.
Due to a strict lockdown of 3 months in India, the labour and economic markets have been thrashed completely. As per the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, the underemployment and unemployment rates have escalated from 8.21% in March to 31.9% in April 2020. This means reduced wages, a decline in social security, and increased working hours. About 90% of India’s population works in the informal or the marginalized sectors which means about 400 million people would have lost their jobs in the post- COVID era. This is expected to generate demand for cheap labour which will lead to an indefinite increase in the cases of child abuse, child trafficking, and child labour in particular.
According to the National Childline Service, 4.6 lakh calls were registered within the first phase of the lockdown indicating increase in child sexual violence by 40%. In one incident, it was found that the recent relaxations in transportation have led to child trafficking by the same traffickers from Bhatta Basti in Jaipur, a place known for producing lac bangles and other handicrafts, to other cities. Unfortunately, no traffickers have been arrested as of now. “The need of the hour is extensive raids by the government to rescue the children. The employers are never going to release them on their own. Cheap labour is going to be in demand once the lockdown is lifted and child labourers are the easiest to exploit. The government should use this opportunity to free them from this bondage,” said Joshita Nag, programme coordinator at SOCH (Society for Children), an NGO in Odisha which rescues children from being trafficked. There have been 9,385 interventions by the authority to prevent child marriages, physical abuse, emotional abuse, trafficking, and child labour at this time.
According to the data, there are almost 152 Million child labourers worldwide and 10.1 Million alone in India. As per the 2011 census, most of the child labourers belong to the age group of 5-14 years. One of the main reasons for child labour is poverty which will only increase with the current situation.
The lack of access to proper healthcare, medicines, food, and basic amenities of living will amplify the impact of COVID-19 on the lower sections of the society.
According to the reports conducted by the “SaveLife foundation”, phase 3 of the lockdown contributed to 60% of the migrant labourers death. All this will lead to a large number of children losing their parents and becoming orphans, leading them to drop out of school to take care of their family and younger siblings. According to reports, about 1.5 Billion children will drop out of school. The online classes arranged by schools are of no help to people who cannot afford the equipment required for the same. Proving yet again how education is a privilege for some to have even in such hard times.
As more people will be losing their jobs, parents will force their kids to work in the informal sectors. The current percentage of children working in hazardous factories is 62.8% in India. The augment in the parent mortality rates will be forcing more and more children into this trap. With the heavy decrease in production, the working hours will be increased and more children will be employed at cheaper rates. More and more children will be forced into begging, child labouring, and sexual abuse. Already, the Childline India Helpline received a total of 3.07 lakh calls related to child labour.
Taking into consideration the societal aspect of a country like India, child marriages will become a source of money and again create its linkages to the trafficking world. Children of migrant labourers and from those belonging to the below poverty line are at the greatest risk.
THE CRISIS AFTER THE CRISIS
In India, the post lockdown situation seems to be dark and gloomy for our children. Children will be sent back to their “native” places apparently of which no one will be aware of where actually they’re being transported, thereby increasing the risk for them being trafficked and again forced into child labour. The health and whereabouts of millions of street children who are not registered will be in question. Children belonging to migrant families bearing the brunt of the economic downturn will be devoid of their access to basic living conditions.
There will be a rise in the mortality rates leading to the majority of our population from lower sections of the society in marginalized sectors. The educational threshold cut will lead to a break away from vocational training further impacting the children. With an increase in the online education system, it will open gates for children to be prey to online sexual exploitation while deepening the existing digital divide. The number of missing children will increase with no tracing back to where they actually are. The impact of COVID lockdown and its aftermath would hamper the physical and mental well-being of children across all sections of society.
If we don’t take any immediate measures, we all will lose our battle of eliminating all kinds of child labour and violence by 2025. Moreover, we will be failing as a society immensely if we do not give our children the basics of a happy and healthy childhood. The world is not getting back on track even if the COVID-19 health crisis is over. The real battle will be fighting from the crisis after this crisis.
 ‘ILO welcomes a major step to end child labour in India’ <https://in.one.un.org/un-news/ilo-welcomes-major-step-to-end-child-labour-in-india/>
 ‘As COVID-19 devastates already fragile health systems, over 6,000 additional children under five could die a day, without urgent action’ (UNICEF, 12 May,2020) <https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/covid-19-devastates-already-fragile-health-systems-over-6000-additional-children>
 Geeta Pandey, ‘Coronavirus: The children struggling to survive India’s lockdown’ (BBC News, 11 May,2020) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52210888
 Rashme Sehgal. ‘In COVID-19 lockdown, ‘reverse trafficking’ of child labour (Deccan Herald, 26 May,2020) <https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/in-perspective/in-covid-19-lockdown-reverse-trafficking-of-child-labour-842145.html>
 Nalini Ravichandran, ‘Where Have the Children on the Streets Gone? (The Wire, 6 May,2020) <https://thewire.in/society/covid-19-lockdown-children-beggars-workers>
 Pushkar Bhnakar, ‘Most migrants died during COVID-19 lockdown 3.0: SaveLife Foundation’ (The Indian Express. 3 June,2020) <https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/jun/03/most-migrants-died-during-covid-19-lockdown-30-savelife-foundation-2151565.html>