The lockdown augmented poverty, uncertainty and domestic anxiety; now more children may move toward the streets; away from home or searching for work.

Veer sits on a wooden stool, in a noisy children’s shelter. His bewildered eyes wander around the room as he recounts his journey to Delhi, his words veiled by a thick Rajasthani accent. He says it got too much – all the numbers and the math. He was tired of the reprimands from his teacher and parents, so he left. At seven, he was unaware of where the train led, but knew wherever it went was away from home and school. He ended up in Delhi, where someone — the Railway Police or a do-gooder — found him on a platform and notified the Child Welfare Committee. The officials brought Veer to this shelter, where he is now telling his story to a counselor, while a larger group comprising members of NGOs, the CWC and a juvenile police unit, searches for his family.

“Veer” is fictional, but the circumstances that pushed him — and many other children like him — away from home are not.

As the coronavirus finds over 1.7 million people in India, a small population — in physical stature, not numbers — needs the world’s attention. The June UNICEF report on children and COVID-19 states, “decades of progress on children’s health, education and other priorities risk being wiped out.” The risks include an escalation of India’s vulnerable minors as the country unlocks amidst aggravating poverty and dwindling child protection services.

Pre-pandemic, the number of child labour cases in India was high, and tough to handle. “Child labour includes those children who are trafficked, children who leave intentionally for work or children who are sent by families to the big cities,” says Navin Sellaraju, CEO of Railway Children of India. RCI is a nongovernmental organisation identifying children at risk on railway platforms alongside the Government Railway Police to bring them to safety. In his experience, Sellaraju says most child workers who are restored to their families by NGOs return to the big cities to find work again.

When handling child labour cases, protection is illusory; it’s not only about restoring a runaway child to his or her family but also fighting a longstanding mindset. For a city like Salem in the state of Tamil Nadu, Sellaraju says, children (mainly from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or Odisha) leave their homes to find work in the bangle or poultry selling industries. Children believe that once they turn 12 or 13 years old, they become providers for the family and so leave their homes in search of a job in the city. “It creates a migratory or predetermined pattern,” he adds. Per the 2011 census, India’s total child population between 5-14 years was 259.6 million, from this, 10 million children are working, either directly or indirectly, and most as workers in industrial warehouses, rag-pickers or vendors.

The three-month pause on work during the lockdown has depleted the savings of low-income families. RCI reported a surge in single-parent or mother-led families who reached out to the NGO for rations to make it through the day. Children in these families may become more likely to find work, and their restoration and rehabilitation may prove more challenging for protection providers post-COVID. There may be a reverse migration to cities, just as there was one away from cities — along the arduous travels, children may face abuse, uncertainty and stigma, as they did before. Already this month, Childline recorded 17 calls pertaining to children taking up jobs in Noida, Dankaur and Greater Noida between March and June.

Where children aren’t being pushed directly into work, they may be facing stress, abuse, and mental illness due to added pressure on caretakers. Sans pandemic, violence already trailed labour closely in the list of reasons for children running away from home. A 2018 UNICEF study on Indian parenting methods, covering two districts within Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra, interviewed parents, grandparents, frontline workers and children between 8-10 years. In the report, respondents mentioned 30 different forms of violence, including physical (slapping, burning, beating), emotional (restricting movement, denying food), verbal (shouting, criticising), and witnessing domestic violence. Institutional abuse, particularly for children with learning disabilities, is another factor spurring the child’s decision to leave his or her home. “Around 15 percent of children on the street say they have a learning disability,” says Parvati Patni, director of Salaam Baalak Trust, “because schools in smaller parts of India find themselves less equipped to teach children with disabilities,” thereby pushing the children away from education, and even triggering escape from home.

The pandemic heightened the push away from home and the pull of the streets. “Where we were finding 20 or 30 children in Delhi,” says Patni, “we found 1 or 2 children because of lockdown; it makes me wonder where all the other children are,” and what they could be enduring. In the first month of lockdown, India’s ChildLine (1098) recorded 9,000 occasions where frontline workers intervened on ground, 20 percent of these interventions were to prevent child marriage, abuse, abandonment, child labour and more.

On the one hand, “the laws and protocols we have in place are adequate,” says Stuti Kacker, former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The NCPCR acts as the primary agent protecting, promoting, and defending child rights in India by ensuring all laws and policies uphold child rights. In 2009, the commission established the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, (ICPS), a centrally sponsored scheme to promote civil society and state partnership in providing child protection to children in difficulty.

We may have our laws, but we lack their implementation. For example, the law stipulates that each state set up Child Welfare Committees, the district-level intervention for all children in need. Nonetheless, a Save the Children report indicates that of seven states reviewed, only Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal had set up CWCs in every district, thereby limiting the grass-roots involvement in the country.

Additionally, though the Union Budget (20-21) increased its allocation towards Child Protection Services from Rs 1,350 crore to Rs 1,500 crore, a report by HAQ Centre for Child Rights, suggests the share for children accounts for 3-4 percent of the total budget, and the allocation for Child Protection Services fell by 1.43 percent from last year (19-20).

The lockdown only exposed the preexisting gaps in India’s protection services. For the first few weeks, when the focus was containing the spread of the virus, the government did not categorise NGOs like RCI as an essential service. Consequently, Sellaraju says RCI intervened at the ground-level, but only where it had local connections. Eventually, NGOs and charities were permitted curfew passes. Such is the pattern of Child Protection Services in India — reactive, but not yet proactive.

For it is not only about the Veers in India, but also the quality of their education, the economic circumstances that drive them to find work at their age, the community where they see it happen all the time. It’s about their friends — who suffer violence at the hands of parents or teachers, who believe violence is tolerable. Various branches divulge into child vulnerability, and so various branches are needed to fight it. The lockdown augmented poverty, uncertainty and domestic anxiety; now more children may move toward the streets; away from home or searching for work. For us to be prepared, India requires a comprehensive intervention policy and a cohesive, multilevel child protective network. It calls for collaboration between civil society and the state. It requires a proactive approach.

When I ask Patni about India’s fight for the safety of vulnerable children, she says “our work is getting there,” but the battle is young, a mere drop in the ocean.

The author works at PVR on the conceptualisation and execution of Cinema Reimagined, a pilot project. She was earlier an assistant to a high-level commissioner at the United Nations. Views are personal.

— Featured image: Reuters/File Photo

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