Jobless and penniless families, along with orphaned children—COVID’s impact in India has created an insidious hunting ground for child traffickers. In Al Jazeera’s newest investigation, several harrowing stories of numerous children exploited for cheap labour were brought to light as the nation’s plight with child workers continues. Roshan, from Bihar, worked in a bangle factory for approximately 15 hours each day and was only paid $30 to $40 a month. However, after contacting his parents to see if they had been receiving the money, he discovered that the owner of the factory was giving as little as $27. He also suffered from multiple chemical burns to his face.
“Working in the bangle factory, my hands used to ache a lot. We were not given food on time, we would get it around 4 p.m. Sitting in one position, my legs would ache too. I could not go anywhere.” Rohan told Al Jazeera. For long hours, the children were required to work with the harsh chemicals that would be used to stick the bangles together. In other pictures shown by Al Jazeera, some children had their knuckles and fingers cut and were bleeding. Other images showed the nails of children severely damaged.
Exploitation, abuse, and trafficking have wrecked India’s most vulnerable communities and been worsened by the pandemic. In video footage recorded by Al Jazeera showing a police raid at a trafficking location, officers were horrified at how filthy and dire the working conditions for children were.
Shahabuddin was one of 16 children rescued in a police raid in June 2020 from a Delhi-bound train. He was the oldest of his family and had five younger siblings. He lost his father to the virus, and his mother, desperate to continue putting food on the table for her six children, would beg for money and work low-wage jobs in India’s farmlands. During the police raid, 12 traffickers were arrested after using money to lure children to work in a garment factory for cheap labour.
“An uncle brought me to Delhi to work in a factory to learn the trade. It is very difficult at home. My father passed away a few months ago and there is no one to support the family. It is only me,” Shabuddin told Al Jazeera. Shahabuddin is currently housed in a temporary rescue shelter for boys in Mukti Ashram. He recalls that after this “uncle” from Bihar approached him and his mother for work opportunities in Delhi, his life rapidly crumbled.
“We took the train at midnight and travelled for 24 hours to reach Anand Vihar station. The uncle’s son left from there and we were separated. I was left alone, there was no one from my village. I was very scared. Then the ticket collector came. The police came as well, I was very scared. I will do whatever my mum says. I do not know how to go home, or if I will go,” Shabuddin tearfully explained.
Anurag Kundu, Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), says 35 million children need protection and 20 million children are without parents or any legal guardians. “Now, [the] pandemic has caused millions of job losses, has destroyed families has caused deaths [on an] unparalleled [scheme]. Now, what this kind of vulnerability does is it makes ground on both sides — for the traffickers to exploit the vulnerabilities of the family and the children, and for the families who are left with no choice but to push their children to labour, to beg, which often become victims of trafficking,” said Kundu in an Al Jazeera report.
Rakesh Sinha, a children’s rights activist, says traffickers carefully choose their targets. “The traffickers are from around the villages and they know about the situation there. They target vulnerable families. There is a complete supply chain. In the supply chain, the trafficker is connected to the locals who identify and tell them about the vulnerable families and the children who can be trafficked. The thing is people need money. Earlier, the traffickers used to give $5 USD as advance but now they give $150-USD 200. In this way, the children become bonded labourers for a year,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), is a prominent organization that fights for the welfare, protection, and rights of India’s children. The organization will hold meetings to create a detailed map for raids. One of their undercover investigations signaled that children were being trafficked and illegally smuggled to a factory in East Delhi.
The 1908 ChildLine is another organization that responded to approximately 400,000 calls from children in distressing situations during the first wave of COVID-19. However, during the second wave, the hotline received many calls about children who were losing all immediate family members because of the virus.
“One of the most heartbreaking [moments] was the sheer number of calls that we’d received during the second surge of COVID wave in which we learned about children losing parents. In one particular instance, there were two children inside a home with the dead bodies of [their] parents next to them. And they were calling for cremation help, and no child deserves to suffer through the crisis or the trauma of having to cremate [their] parents,” Kundu told Al Jazeera.
In another story highlighted by Kundu, he revealed that another two children had lost their parents, and one of the children tried to commit suicide.
According to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, more than 101,000 children have either been threatened or abandoned between April 2020 and August 2021. As a result, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, provided benefits to children, such as free education and special funds that would be disbursed to them once they turn 18.
In India, it is considered an offence if a child is employed to work under the age of 18, and it is equally illegal to have them unemployed in dangerous environments. According to Section 370 of India’s Penal Code (IPC), the government has “criminalized trafficking offences that involved exploitation that included any act of physical exploitation or any form of sexual exploitation, slavery or practices similar to slavery, and servitude. The law did not explicitly address labour trafficking.” A 2011 census revealed that 10 million children were child labourers.
“This entire issue of children being impacted by COVID, we are looking at a sea of broken children. If there was ever a time for us to come together as a community, as humanity, especially for our most vulnerable children, I think the time is now. If we don’t understand this now, we perhaps as humanity would never understand what our children need,” Sonal Kapoor of the Protsahan India Foundation stressed to Al Jazeera.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the government of India has attempted to instill significant efforts to prosecute more cases, identify more victims, and provide more resources for victims. However, not all initiatives have led to success. In the document, it states that more “government funding” was collected to strengthen “existing” and the “establishment” of Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTU’s). Railway police increased at transportation hubs and funding was also collected to “establish women help desks” in 10,000 police stations across the country, which facilitated services for victims of crime, including human trafficking. The government also tried to identify more victims of trafficking and investigate more cases.
The Department of State has called upon the Indian government to “amend the definition of trafficking in Section 370 of the Penal Code to include labour trafficking and ensure that force, fraud, or coercion are not required to prove a child sex trafficking crime,” to “vigorously investigate allegations of official complicity in human trafficking and sentence perpetrators to significant prison terms,” and to “provide anti-trafficking training for diplomatic personnel.”
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