The lifting of the lockdown has revived the vile business of child trafficking, especially since their parents are jobless and willing to give them up on the assurance that their education will continue
The common fear that instances of child trafficking in the country will increase during the pandemic and the lockdown which rendered millions jobless, is coming true. And traffickers are finding a new medium to travel – via Roadways buses.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a child rights organisation started by Kailash Satyarthi, has during the lockdown period up until now rescued 720 children from trafficking. BBA’s spokesperson, Manish Sharma tells us that they notice a new trend by the traffickers, who are using buses to transport children. This is probably because fewer trains are running, more checks are being conducted by the Government Railway Police (GRP) and only travellers with reservation are being allowed on trains.
One of the most recent rescues was in the early hours of August 17, where they received a tip off of children being taken from Araria district of Bihar. “They had already left the state. We then spoke with the Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) at Gorakhpur and managed to rescue the children from three buses. This was carried out from 12 midnight to 4 am.”
Three buses were intercepted, which were found to be taking 28 children to Delhi, by nine traffickers who were arrested. Of the children rescued, 19 were found to be in the 9-16 age group, and the rest between the ages of 11 and 14 years.
A few days before this rescue, there was another bus which had been intercepted from Bihar’s Araria, again carrying children to Delhi, a major source state for child labour used in hazardous factory work.
“A child would work for 15-16 hours a day and get paid Rs 50-Rs 100 a day. The child thinks he will earn and send money home. But the employer says he is too young, he is learning the work. They don’t even get proper food, forget money. We have experienced children being rescued and seeing daylight outside after six months to even a year”, Sharma shares.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s data from 2018, the total number of persons below the age of 18 who had become victims of trafficking were 2,834. And people like Sharma, who are well aware of traffickers and their tactics believe the pandemic, the lockdown and consequent job loss has created a perfect ground for them.
“During the lockdown parents were home, so were the children and also the traffickers. These traffickers already identified who to target, those who are financially in trouble or where the man is an alcoholic. And while they were unable to traffic during the lockdown, they were ready to traffic once the lockdown was lifted and we were ready with a strategy to take action”, Sharma says.
While new methods are being used, this is not to say that traffickers’ favourite train route is completely out of bounds, as on the intervening night of August 18-19, BBA received a tip-off about children being trafficked by train. Seven children were rescued and a trafficker arrested, at Mokama station in Patna district, in a joint operation by the local GRP and Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel. The children were as young as eight years old.
We also spoke with Junaid Khan, who looks at operations in UP’s Varanasi for Childline India Foundation. He says the high unemployment rate has left families with no money to live on, “So, chances of using child labour is up by 40%. Over 10 districts of the Purvanchali areas are connected to Varanasi so this is an important area to cover. Now whatever trains are running we are checking. Right now, we have found that the employer is directly sending an in-charge or a supervisor instead of a middle man.”
He goes on to explain just why the traffickers are breaking from their old ways. “Only people with reserved tickets are allowed, and the list is being checked for entry into the station. Many are using their own vehicles, or hiring vehicles, getting e-passes made”.
School closure, kids in danger
In fact, a recent case of bribing officials for e-passes to traffic young teenage girls was brought before the Madras High Court. The case before the court saw how six young girls between the ages of 13-15 were found to be working in a yarn-making factory. The court was informed that the brokers who brought the children during the summer vacation months, promised that they will be simultaneously given education by the company itself so that they will not miss the chance to pursue their higher education.
The children were found to have been brought without proper e-passes or Covid-19 tests, while at the same time working in a factory with a total of 331 individuals. The court took a strong view and said this was a classic case, “which would demonstrate as to how corrupt Government servants utilise any situation to make illegal gain” calling them “cut-throat corrupt officials in the system” who are like “cruel blood-thirsty wolves”.
It also went on to say that this was just the tip of the iceberg, as brokers were getting e-passes by paying anywhere between Rs 500 to Rs 2,000.
Dr Kandasamy Krishnan, Executive Director Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) which works in the southern states to rescue people from trafficking and bonded labour, says the misuse is rampant. But what is more worrying and poses a greater threat, Krishnan says, is the fact that schools remain closed. “Government’s push for online classes cannot benefit the poor. One needs the internet, a smartphone. How will these people be able to access this? So, the children are made vulnerable when there is a complete absence of education.”
His organisation also conducted a survey amongst 76,000 persons from March 29 onwards. “Amongst them there were 60% who did not want to go back to the same job. But now since many people lost their jobs, and schools are not functioning, it will lead to a further increase of child labour exploitation and further the incidences of bonded labour and human trafficking”, he adds.
Krishnan also points to a lackadaisical attitude by monitoring units in districts, which should be vigilant during this pandemic on incidences of child trafficking.
Since the lockdown, FSD has made three rescues from Telangana and four from Tamil Nadu where child labour was being used. Its data of Tamil Nadu shows that on May 20, an operation in a brick kiln resulted in 27 children being rescued alongside 316 adults.
Next on June 1, again a case from a brick kiln yielded a rescue of 455 adults and 60 children. Then on the 9th of the same month, a total of 306 adults were rescued with 97 children. Then on June 10, 27 children and 360 adults were freed. Krishnan says pregnant women and children were being made to work here. All of these cases were from Tiruvallur district.
While traffickers find new ways to circumvent the security that should be in place to stop them, anti-trafficking units now have a bigger task at hand. The latest Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data showed that around 6.8 million daily wage earners lost their jobs during this period, putting millions of their vulnerable children at further risk.
(Cover: Hundreds of children have been rescued from being trafficked for hazardous labour during the pandemic // REPRESENTATIONAL IMAGE: Getty)