In early September this year, when the markets were slowly opening up, Sukhai Ram, 47, met Rajneesh Dubey in a village market in Bahraich neighbouring Nepal, where the latter promised to give his 13-year-old son Mohan a job in a factory. A few days later Rajneesh came to Sukhai’s village and gave him Rs 2,000. He promised that every month Mohan would send him Rs 5,000.
“I got swayed by those words and allowed him to take Mohan with him to the city. I never knew he was taking Mohan to make him a bonded labourer,” Sukhai said while recalling the incident.
Sukhai, who is a Dalit, lives in a village as a landless farmer. He has four children and earns his livelihood by working in the fields of other farmers.
“I have seen some people from my village go to cities and work in factories, so when Rajneesh offered a job for my son, I agreed as I thought he would also work in some factory. There is no future in the village and after the COVID-19 pandemic, life has become tougher,” Sukhai said.
The pandemic has changed the economic landscape, particularly in rural India. The villagers, who had moved to cities to earn their livelihoods, were forced to return to their hometowns after losing jobs during the lockdown. In villages, the government help was minimal and the livelihood programmes were insufficient. Thus, the poor became an easy prey to the agents who lured children and trafficked them to cities.
Social activists and aid workers working with children are amazed at the spurt in the child trafficking cases in the last few months. The National Childline number 1098 received 1.92 lakh distress calls between March and August this year while this number was 1.70 lakh in the same period in 2019.
The anti-human trafficking unit of Uttar Pradesh in collaboration with Women and Child Welfare department and volunteers of civil societies rescued 2,340 children in the month of September whereas this number is generally 60-70.
The Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) rescued 1,197 children between April and September this year across India while this figure was 613 in the same period in 2019.
“The situation is unprecedented. People are rendered jobless because of the pandemic. They do not have any employment opportunities in villages. As they do not have any work they fall prey to gullible agents and send their children with them with the hope that the children would earn some money in cities,” said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of BBA.
He said, “Traffickers exploit the vulnerabilities of people by making false promises which range from a new job to better living conditions or support to their families. For the poor, these promises appear legitimate and this makes many men, women and children easy prey for exploitation.”
Anjani Tiwari of Salaam Balak Trust, who works with the street children in New Delhi, claims that he has not seen such an influx of trafficked children in his life.
“We have rescued groups of children coming from Bihar and other states to Delhi almost every day. These thirsty and hungry children aged 12-17 years are packed in unreserved compartments and come with a hope to get a job in Delhi or adjoining cities,” he said.
The majority of the children are from the impoverished states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Telangana and are taken to Gujarat, Rajasthan, Mumbai and Delhi. These children are made to work in the bangle industry in Rajasthan, saree industry in Gujarat and roadside eateries in Delhi.
The children are much sought after because the owner pays them just Rs 400-500 per month against Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000 charged by elders. “Secondly, these children are made to work 14-16 hours a day and if one refuses to work he/she is beaten black and blue. One beating sends the message down the group, which suits the owner,” Tingal said.
The owners of industrial units pay anything between Rs 5,000-10,000 per child to the agents who bring children to their units.
Surojit Chatterjee of Save the Children said the children were now at a greater risk. “As the economy unlocks, labour contractors will be stalking desperately impoverished villages for cheap labourers. The agents are on the prowl in the poverty-stricken villages where getting two square meals a day is a big challenge. Any allurement works like a magic there, especially for children from families left in the lurch by the economic distress triggered by the lockdown,” he said.
The agents of the labour contractors are not unknown faces. They are the people whom villagers know. Surya Pratap Mishra, an activist, says that traffickers have reaped a big harvest during the pandemic.
“In some villages of Sonbhadra and Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, these agents distributed free ration and food among the impoverished villagers for many days when they were starving. Once they earned their confidence they offered jobs for the children in Delhi and Surat. As the villagers knew these people they agreed and sent their children with them,” he said.
(Name of children and their parents have been changed to conceal their identities)