CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of a 12-year-old Indian farm worker during a 100km trek home following the coronavirus lockdown has sparked a probe into child labour in central India, officials said on Tuesday.
India’s 1.3 billion people have been ordered indoors to slow the spread of the virus, which has so far claimed at least 600 lives and infected more than 18,000 people.
Hundreds of thousands of workers across India have embarked on long journeys home by foot since the government last month imposed a lockdown, which has since been extended until May 3.
K.D. Kunjam, the top bureaucrat in the Bijapur district of the girl’s home state of Chhattisgarh, said the child was working as a farmhand in southern Telangana state and was a part of a group of twelve that decided to make the journey home.
“She had walked around 60-70 kilometres (km) and their village was around 20 km from the place where she died,” Kunjam told Reuters.
They trekked through hills and forests in baking heat but she started complaining of stomach pain and breathlessness by the fourth day, he said.
Critics have slammed the state and federal governments’ failure to address the concerns of migrant workers, even as they rushed to ferry Indians stranded abroad and students with mostly middle class backgrounds stuck in western Rajasthan state.
Kunjam said he had been urging workers not to make the long journeys and stay where they were till the lockout ended, despite calls by jobless migrant workers to allow travel to their homes as they have run out of money for food and shelter.
“A CHILD, NOT A WORKER”
Bijapur official Hemendra Bhuarya said the girl, Jamlo Madkam, had died of dehydration and exhaustion on Saturday.
“This is a clear case of child labour and we are looking for the contractor who took the girl to work,” Bhuarya, who is heading the investigation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are also trying to understand if the parents were given any advance by the contractor and the circumstances under which they sent her to work,” said Bhuarya, the sub-divisional magistrate of Bijapur.
The state government had awarded 100,000 rupees ($1,300) compensation to Madkam’s parents and would step up measures to monitor and tackle child labour and trafficking, Bhuarya added.
The United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are about 10 million workers aged 5-14 in India.
Indian labour laws ban the employment of anyone aged under 15 but children are permitted to support family businesses outside of school hours. This provision is widely exploited by employers and human traffickers, child rights campaigners say.
“This (Madkam’s death) should have never happened. She was just a child, not a migrant worker,” said independent human rights activist Linga Ram Kodopi, who is based in Chhattisgarh.
“Every year we see children being taken away to work because there are so few opportunities ... they bring back a sack of chilli after four months that the family feeds off for a year.”
India’s coronavirus lockdown has left tens of millions of informal workers without cash or food, and fearful that bureaucracy will hinder their access to government assistance.
Many families will instead resort to taking out loans at high interest rates in order to survive, while others will fall deeper into debt and end up trapped in bonded labour - India’s most prevalent form of modern slavery - according to activists.
Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Additional Reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESWAR; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org
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