The children of the current exodus are the most vulnerable to its impact. We need to ease their pain.
(Written by Ajinkya Kawale)
Ever since the nationwide lockdown was imposed, lakhs of migrant labourers and their families have rejigged the country’s deserted highways into massive footpaths as they frantically trudge towards their native places. With depleting supplies and a precarious future staring at them, these migrant workers could not find a basic raison d’être to stay in cities and the absence of transportation systems have forced them to relocate back to their native homes on foot. As tragic visuals of labour families plodding in the scorching sun are making headlines, we have brazenly overlooked at the adversities of the ones most susceptible to this affliction caused; migrant children.
While the pandemic does not differentiate on any basis, the crisis that follows it portrays a striking bias. It is harsh on the most vulnerable; especially on children of migrant workers as well as on other kids employed illegally in various sectors, who provide monetary support to their families living in villages.
As families walk a hundred miles, weary and out of breath, many children have found comfort on the shoulders of their guardians. Their older siblings accompany them as they carry heavy belongings over their heads while witnessing an unprecedented crisis. The effect of this lockdown induced reverse migration on children has been largely under-reported. Government estimates an alarming figure of 6 lakh migrants reaching their villages on foot.
A UN report on ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Children’ states that the crisis is “expected to be most damaging for children in the poorest countries, and in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations”. It further adds that children will be affected either with coronavirus infection itself or an immediate socio-economic impact from the mitigation measures aimed at curbing virus transmission or the effect of delayed Sustainable Development Goals. While the country has not reported many cases of such infected children, the ongoing exodus exposes them to long-term agony and psycho-socioeconomic hardships.
The pandemic and the subsequent clampdown has affected children beyond hunger and acute fatigue. While the younger would perceive the situation as merely an act of exhaustion, children in their teens who can analyse this forced migration, its implications and their helplessness would inflict life-long trauma over themselves. The realisation of deepening poverty as a product of family’s joblessness and loss of income will make them disillusioned about their future and in some cases, severe stress could trigger prolonged mental health issues.
As their inter-state and intra-provincial journey continues, families have found themselves in a churn with inadequate monetary support and a dearth of essential resources. Insufficient nutrition, lack of sanitation, hygiene and the absence of access to clean drinking water would threaten their health. It could lead to serious dehydration, stroke or diseases like jaundice, cholera or typhoid thus raising the ante for children who are enduring the pain of this exodus. As they tread from metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai towards their native places, into hinterlands of the country, they are moving to regions of insufficient healthcare systems. Underresourced and burdened medical services would turn away sick children arriving from cities fearing virus transmission. Children suffering from chronic illnesses would be the worst hit. Moreover, the fear of a ballooning pandemic linked to people arriving from COVID-19 hotspots would push them into social isolation.
The ongoing crisis has presented a worrying snapshot of India’s economy arriving at a halt. Job losses and an acute shortage of savings has either pushed labour families to the brink of poverty or deep into it. Children in their adolescence and late teens would be expected to cover the void generated from financial distress thus pushing them into the vicious cycle of child labour. While economic hardships deepen, India could witness a spike in employing children in various sectors.
While Census 2011 estimates the number of child labourers between ages 5-14 at 10.1 million, the number is expected to have increased substantially today. As manufacturing and service sector reopens gradually and struggles to catch up on the time and revenue lost during the shutdown, these children would be seen as sources of inexpensive labour. The crisis would further exacerbate as they would be underpaid and exploited at their workplaces. Industries employing children are infamous for inflicting physical, mental and sexual abuse, child trafficking and jeopardizing their dignity by forcing them to engage in hazardous jobs. They could be exposed to drugs and other forms of narcotics with a desire to alleviate stress as they grind in their 6 to 12 hours shifts. As they engage in some form of labour, many would be forced to drop out of schools to support themselves and their families. This would also lead to a disruption in their access to free nourishment at schools.
While numerous schools across the country have utilised the internet to arrange classes online, for migrant children, smartphones and a steady internet connection are facilities that are beyond their reach. As they move deeper into rural areas, they will lose contact with their schools back in cities. Engaging in child labour and a subsequent drop from school will threaten their fundamental right to education as enshrined in the Indian Constitution, thus aggravating the learning crisis. These children would be unable to catch-up with their peers in learning processes.
The effect of reverse migration on these children has been faintly reported due to the inadequacy of appropriate data available on the number of children migrating, and the nature of its impact. We will be unable to assess the severity of this situation in the absence of proper monitoring mechanisms that can evaluate the effect of this crisis on children. While the roll-out of an economic stimulus package partly aimed at migrant workers is just a strand in the safety net, policymakers also need to focus on rebooting child-centric assistance like schooling, nutrition, immunization services, protection of child rights and prevention from forced labour as well as delinquency. The government can encourage families to re-send children back to schools by reviving fiscal and other non-fiscal incentives like meals, books and other forms of stationery. Local administrative bodies can collaborate with NGOs to better assess the situation, prepare a roadmap and provide support to these children. This is the right time to prevent long term damage and protect them. India’s young migrants, the ones most vulnerable to this crisis need our help
(The writer is a journalism undergrad at D Y Patil International University, Pune. Views are personal. He tweets at @Ajinkyajayant16)
Also read other articles by the author India and UNSC during a pandemic
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