Several organisations working for child rights in India have expressed fear that Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown could lead to an increase in the number of children being forced into bonded labour due to falling costs and economic pressures. On the World Against Child Labour Day, News18 reached out to Priyank Kanoongo, chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) India’s premier child rights body, to understand how seriously the commission is looking at these concerns and what it is doing to fight the menace of child labour.
Many organisations have expressed fear that child labour could increase in the coming days due to joblessness and economic pressures. How do you see the situation?
Right now it is certainly a challenge. But this is also the right time to turn this challenge into an opportunity. Manufacturing and service sectors are shut as are many organised and unorganised sectors, where a lot of children are employed. A lot of children have got out of their workplaces and are reaching home.
Now all we need to do is to ensure that children who have returned do not go back to their workplaces. We will have to work on increasing the retention percentages of schools so that we can to see to it that such children are diverted towards schools and not back to their workplaces. We see the present time as an opportunity to deal a huge blow to the menace of child labour.
What according to you has been the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on child labour?
We will have to look at Covid-19 and lockdown as two separate issues. All our attempts earlier were to save people’s lives. It was a big challenge. Because of the lockdown all modes of transport, including trains, came to a halt. Now, as I said, we have an opportunity to save vulnerable children. We who work on the field understand well the issue of child rescue.
When we rescue a child and send him home, we also have to spend a lot of time counselling him, to prime them psychologically to think of doing manual labour as bad. We have to reorient the child towards studies. So the lockdown has given us the opportunity to not just stem the flow of children towards industries and factories but to counsel children we have rescued towards beginning a new life.
How many children are being exploited through labour right now in India?
We go by the last report we had obtained through 2011 census. That’s our benchmark. According to it, between the ages of 5 to 14 years of age, there were 43.53 lakh children across the country working as child labourers.
What has NCPCR done to fight the menace of child labour in India over the past one year?
We have set up benches across the country, district level reviews have been done, officers on the ground have been sensitised. We have conducted rescue operations ourselves and some in coordination with some other agencies. We have made judicial interventions to ensure that FIR is instantly registered in such cases. We also have introduced an SOP in this case, which will make it easier to ensure the rescued child’s rehabilitation, compensation, etc.
What is the biggest challenge in the country as far as dealing with the issue of child labour is concerned?
We have to change the way we think. That, I think, is the biggest challenge. We give the people and industries that employ children fancy names and glorify a social evil. The people employing children are criminals, plain and simple. We need to get this straight.