Over 9k children trafficked during pandemic: Report
Child rights activists, and even the Union home ministry, have warned about a possible increase in instances of child trafficking after the country started emerging from the national lockdown in June and July last year.
Dilbar was on his way to Delhi along with 16 other children from West Bengal in August 2020 when some activists spotted them in Bihar and sounded out the authorities about a possible case of child trafficking. When the train stopped at Delhi’s Anand Vihar station, the police and members of a child rights foundation were waiting to rescue them.
This wasn’t the young boy’s first trip to Delhi for work. The 11-year-old had worked in a sewing factory for six months before he had to return due to the Covid-19 induced lockdown in March. “My uncle got me a ticket in August,” said Dilbar who has been living in Mukti Ashram, a short-term rehabilitation centre run by Bachan Bachao Andolan for rescued boys in Burari on the outskirts of the national capital Delhi. His uncle faces prosecution under the child labour law.
Data compiled by Bachan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the non-profit founded by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, indicates that Dilbar is among the 9,000 children who were rescued when they were being trafficked for labour between April 2020 and June 2021 as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the country. At 3,183, the largest number of children were rescued in Uttar Pradesh, followed next by Telangana (2,805), Andhra Pradesh (593), Rajasthan (430) and Gujarat (333).
Child rights activists, and even the Union home ministry, have warned about a possible increase in instances of child trafficking after the country started emerging from the national lockdown in June and July last year. The BBA had then underscored that there would be greater demand for child labour because factory owners will look to cover their financial losses by employing cheap labour.
BBA executive director Dhananjay Tingal said the assessment wasn’t off the mark.
“Last time, even when the modes of transport were limited, (still) children continued to be trafficked,” he said, adding that there was a substantial increase in the number of distress calls received by the foundation.
To be sure, the foundation started getting SOS messages within weeks of the national lockdown imposed in March 2020. “In many places, the children were left without any food or work.” Experts have pointed out how systems designed to help children failed to keep up with the alarming spread of Covid-19; the economic situation pushed many into destitution.
There were also reports of an increase in child abuse and trafficking during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Enakshi Ganguly, the co-founder of child right’s organization HAQ, said no one had done a systematic study but there was some evidence to indicate an increase in the vulnerability of children, with a rise in school dropout rates and an increase in child labour.
The study by the Campaign Against Child Labour in states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan shows very clearly that there is an increase in child labour. “They found that it was a combination of not having schools, devices and economic distress that led children to drop out of school and venture into child labour. The connection between child labour and child trafficking is a very thin line. There is no reason to believe not an increase in trafficking. An increase in vulnerability creates a situation where children are bought and sold.”
The National Crime Records Bureau hasn’t released official statistics for 2020. The 2019 report, however, counted a 2.8% increase in cases from 2,837 in 2018 to 2,914 in 2019. The total number of persons trafficked in 2019 was 6,616.
Tingal said when the lockdown was lifted in August, the foundation did notice a trend of children travelling in trains meant for migrants and even in buses. “The major mode of transport was buses,” he said. “From August to October, there was a sharp increase in the number of children travelling without parents or guardians in these, it was then we realized that they were being trafficked. We rescued nearly 400 children during this period and nearly 100 traffickers were arrested.”
It is in this context that the government is expected to again introduce a bill targeted to deal with trafficking during the monsoon session. The draft bill has specific provisions to prosecute traffickers and those who help them such as Dilbar’s uncle. It proposes seven to 10 years of jail and up to ₹5 lakh fine for those convicted. There is also a provision to enable the National Investigation Agency to investigate trafficking cases.
Ganguly of HAQ said strengthening social structures was the only way to stop child trafficking rather than more punitive laws and penal reforms.