Parents in debt, out of work, school kids in city forced into child labour
Prolonged closure of schools and job loss due to the lockdown enforced to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has pushed a lot of students from the economically weaker section into child labour, NGOs working for child rights and attendance data from online classes suggest.
With classes being shifted online, education has taken a back-seat for the majority of these children who do not have access to electronic devices and the internet. Most of these children who live in slums and working class neighbourhoods are now working full-time to support their families.
A joint report published by the Unicef and International Labour Organization (ILO) on June 12, had said that the Child labour has declined by 94 million since 2000, but job losses and rising poverty because of the lockdown and sickness is likely to force more children to seek exploitative and hazardous jobs as families use every available means to earn some money and survive.
A 10-year-old class 4 student at a municipal school in Seelampur, has been engaged by her mother to peel electric wires with a sharp knife at her rented one-room house. “My mother gets these wires from a nearby factory and we get ₹5 per kg for peeling them. We did not get any work for months due to coronavirus lockdown. My father, who works in a factory, also did not earn anything for months. Mother says we have a debt to pay. She asked us to work faster and help her peeling at least 20 Kg wire a day to make good money,” she said.
They first burn the wire to melt it and then separate the copper and plastic using a sharp knife. Acknowledging that it is dangerous work for a 10-year-old, her mother said, “We remained out of work for months and bought the regular ration on credit from the local shops here. I have to pay that back and for that, we need to earn more. I would not have taken their help if the schools were open. But now they are home the whole day and we do not have a smartphone for online classes. Her teacher calls every week and then I send her to school to get the homework.”
A few kilometers away in Geeta Colony, a 12-year-old girl has been working as a domestic help to support her family. Her mother, who was working in a local condiment factory, and brother who was employed in a jeans manufacturing unit lost their jobs during the lockdown. Her father does not work due to his failing health. “After losing her job, my mother started working as a cleaner in a temple. She later started working in some households. She was earning only Rs 3,000, and it was difficult for her to support the family of eight. She then employed me as a maid in two households. I clean the house and also wash the utensils,” she said.
The girl, a class 7 student at a government school in Gandhi Nagar, said that she studies during the nights. “We have one phone at home and six of us study using that only. My turn of using the phone comes in the end. So I try to study for some hours before I go to bed,” she said.
According to NGO CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action), at least 55% or 325 of the 586 children in their contact in east and north-east districts of Delhi have been engaged in some sort of work ever since the schools have been shut in view of the pandemic.
Most of them are engaged in waste picking, domestic work, selling vegetables, fruits, or other items with parents, and cutting threads from readymade garments and peeling wires, among other works.
A class 4 student who goes to dump yards in Dilshad Garden’s Qalandar Colony to collect scrap, said, “I earn Rs 40-50 every day by selling plastic scrap. Both my brother and I use the money to feed ourselves.” His mother, who also collects and sells scrap, said, “Earlier, they would get at least one meal from the school. I am the sole earner and with my meagre income of around ₹100-150 a day how do I provide food to them multiple times? We have received money for mid-day meals in their accounts only till June and nothing after that.”
The central government’s mid-day meal programme has also been disrupted by the pandemic. The scheme is run through state governments. Officials at the Directorate of Education (DoE) said that as per the new directions from the central government, students will now be given dry ration instead of allowance. “We have already procured dry ration for students. They will be given wheat, dal, rice, oil among other items with effect from July. We will soon start distributing the kits through schools,” said a senior DoE official.
In north Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tilla area, a class 6 student at a government school has been selling fruits on a cart to support his family. His father, who drives an e-rickshaw in the locality, said, “I had no work for months and had to borrow money to feed my children. In order to pay back the money, I have rented out this cart for my son to sell fruits till his school reopens. He anyway cannot study during the day because I have to carry the only phone we have to work.”
Sanjay Gupta, director of CHETNA, said, “Every year NGOs like ours motivate thousands of children to get admission in government schools so that they can study, get a mid-day meal, and have constructive engagement. But the closure of schools has pushed children back to work due to the poor financial condition of their families. We request authorities to provide means for online education, creatively think about how mid-day meals can still be provided, provide education and recreational material, and most importantly do an assessment of how many children have been pushed to work or migrated.”
Amrita Johri of NGO Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan said they are going to hold a public hearing by the end of this month to highlight issues faced by the low-income families of Delhi amid the pandemic, including the vulnerable children.
Officials at the DoE and municipal corporations said that schools have been asked to track each and every student who is not attending online classes.
An official at Delhi government’s education department, who wished not to be named, said, “Our teachers are in regular touch with the children and their parents. In some cases, teachers even visited the houses of irregular students. The majority of the students are in touch with the schools and are either attending the online classes or collecting assignment sheets or worksheets from their schools. There is a possibility that some of them might be working to support their families along with that. The schools will be asked to identify such kids and counsel their families.”
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) said that it has started the process of tracking students who are not attending online classes regularly. Anurag Kundu, chairperson of DCPCR, said, “We have set up teams which are visiting homes, tracking these children since the last week of October. We have decided to hold a fortnightly review meeting,” he said.