While there are no statistics on the total number of children displaced due to the lockdown imposed by the Government in India, it may be said that almost 1/4th of the population displaced comprises children. There are more than 7000 children in the capital who have no shelter, means of living or proper Government assistance till today. This piece address the significant lacuna in the policy taken up by the Indian Government that exists in dealing with children.
Reports from China and Europe have shown that elderly people and those with other health complications are most vulnerable, taking the attention of the policymakers completely away from children. “It may have been that the millennial generation, our largest generation, our future generation that will carry us through for the next multiple decades, here may be a disproportional number of infections among that group,” Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a press conference on Wednesday, citing the reports. While due to lack of studies on the impact of COVID-19 on migrant children, the subject remains a grey area. Starvation, poor growth and severe impact on mental health are common concerns when it comes to children. While in the case of migrant children, it is coupled with lack of proper shelter and Government assistance for the same.
As the Government conceives of reopening small and medium-sized industries in rural and semi-urban areas, severe concerns have been raised with regards to increased demand for child labour in those industries. While the labour population across the country has been displaced, lack of manpower in these factories is a growing concern that shall amplify in the days to come. While children from nearby villages are a source of cheap labour in normal times, their demand is set to increase in the days to come that shall lead to extreme child exploitation, an area nobody is talking about.
“The most vulnerable children – including refugees, migrants, and children who are internally displaced, deprived of liberty, living without parental care, living on the street and in urban slums, with disabilities, and living in conflict-affected areas – are a particular concern. For many, growing economic vulnerability will increase the threat of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking.”
While child nutrition has already had a ‘bleak picture in the country’ as per National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data, from 1992–1993 to 2015–2016, with the breaking of ration supply chain to the lower economic households, this figure is expected to turn from bad to worse in a couple of months. Furthermore, children across socio-economic backgrounds have been kept away from their most fundamental right: Right to Education. While no other institution can replace formal schooling, efforts have been made by private schools to start classes using software such as google meet, zoom and webex. However, the challenge remains for students from the economically weaker sections who have no means to connect to their classrooms. The case remains extremely vulnerable for Government schools as the Administration has taken up no efforts to connect children digitally. Although the Delhi Government has been able to start classes for 12th standard, not all children have been able to bear its fruits due to the lack of technical equipment and no subsidy on internet connections for students.
There is a structural digital divide among children in India. Wikimedia Commons
Thus, there is a strong need felt for the Ministry of Women and Child Development to intervene in these matters. While vaccination programmes shall allow the immunity of the children to remain strong enough, the basic needs of children such as proper food and shelter shall be taken up by the said ministry. More than ever, stringent norms against child labour shall be applied to dissuade factory owners from hiring children in the absence of the required workforce. The said ministry, along with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Information Broadcasting shall roll out separate channels on televisions and radio networks to roll out programmes and shows based on the curriculum. Students appearing for board examinations or competitive examinations in the coming year should be provided with subsidies internet connections and gadgets to aid in their efforts. Such policies shall allow the welfare of children as much as possible.
Times as such not only test the foresightedness of the Government but also coordination between agents of the Government. An area as intricate as child welfare in times of COVID-19 require the cooperation of more than just one Ministry or one department.
This is part 2 of the COVID-19 perspective series.
Debargha Roy is the editor of GNLU Journal for Law, Development and Politics.