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Bonded labour, human trafficking: India's 39 crore unorganized labour 'vulnerable'

By Niharika* 
As India demands a seamless supply of essential goods during the nationwide lockdown to fight COVID-19, the central question is – what are the conditions under which the labour force is meeting the demand of mass production and delivery at low costs?
India began its nationwide lockdown on March 25, 2020, backed by health experts as a necessary step for containing the rapid spread of the virus. There are, however, consequences of coronavirus that go beyond health-related challenges, and raise possibly more long-term humanitarian concerns.
Over 39 crore population of the unorganised and migrant workers who are flung outside of the security umbrella, find themselves in a heightened position of vulnerability. This makes them the easiest target for the highly organised crime network of human trafficking. As thousands trek back to their villages, only dire deprivation and hunger awaits them.
Even for daily subsistence, they will be forced into debt at predatory interest rates. This will trigger decades of intergenerational bondage and wage-less labour, in lieu of a few thousands of rupees. Hundreds of thousands of children will be enslaved.
Once the lockdown is lifted and normal manufacturing activity resumes, factory owners will look to cover their financial losses by employing cheap labour. Increasingly desperate and vulnerable population of unorganised workers, who are in no position to negotiate wages or their rights, form the ideal source of such cheap labour.
A large number of these labourers will be children, forced out of school, bearing the burden of sustaining their families. Thousands of children will be trafficked across the country to work in manufacturing units where they will be paid meager to no wages and will most likely face extreme physical, mental and sexual violence.
Underage girls will be married, and bought and sold into prostitution. As per the Government of India (2007), there are at least 30 lakh women including 12 lakh girls below the age of 18 years in prostitution.
This business of commercial sexual exploitation that has faced financial loss in the face of the lockdown will look to seek to overcome this loss through high-return investments, i.e. a girl from the family who has lost their means of subsistence and survival.
Pornhub, the largest pornography platform in the world, has seen a 95% jump in traffic India. A large segment of this content includes trafficked children who are raped to create pornographic content. Adults and children who consume this content are likely to normalise and fetishise child rape and sexual violence, which may translate into offline sexual violence.

Preparedness to counter the imminent rise of bonded labour and trafficking

As Governments struggles to contain immediate health and economic challenges we must start planning to deal with the imminent impact of this crisis on the safety of the most vulnerable, especially children.
Assessment and review of legal framework: The Government of India must assess the existing purely criminal law on trafficking and its ability to counter the organised nature of trafficking and meet the needs of the victim. The lapsed anti-trafficking bill needs to be pulled out, strengthened and passed by the Parliament urgently.
Inspections of factories and manufacturing units: Small and medium business will try and operate through unregulated manufacturing units to subvert inspection, and must be contained within the system of accountability.
Consequences of coronavirus go beyond health-related challenges and raise possibly several long-term humanitarian concerns
The enforcement and compliance of child labour and bonded labour laws will require increased focus including extensive combing exercises of registered factories and other manufacturing units for at  least two years, to prevent the use of child labourers.
Increase in budgetary allocation for law enforcement and victim rehabilitation: There is a gross deficit in the budgetary allocation to combat bonded labour and trafficking. Up to 2016, India has rescued 3.13 lakh bonded labourers. The rehabilitation framework of rescued bonded labourers was strengthened in the year 2016 through a scheme of the Central Government which provides for compensation between up to Rs 3 lakh to victims.
From the date of the notification of this Scheme till December 2019, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, has rescued 1,550 child bonded labourers and 2,823 child victims of trafficking. The rehabilitation of these children alone required a minimum of Rs 100.2 crore.
Yet, the total allocation for the Scheme under the National Budget is only 100 crore annually. This calls for an immediate increase in the budgetary allocation for the rehabilitation of rescued bonded labourers and trafficking victims.
Regulation of loan and money lending systems: The disproportionate increase in the power of local moneylenders in rural India to exploit those affected by the lockdown needs regulation.
This includes widespread licensing to lend, setting of ceilings on lending rates, government banks extending long-term soft loans without collateral, and simple and lenient recovery processes. State Governments must proactively pass immediate orders to nip the rise of bonded labour in the bud.
Curbing the rise of online child sexual abuse material: The upsurge of child sexual abuse material and its easy access can only be controlled by placing greater accountability on Internet Service Providers and digital platforms that host this content. They must be accountable to not only identify and remove content, but also to trace its source and cooperate with the law enforcement to crackdown on its supply and demand.
Spreading a wide safety net in source areas of trafficking: Schools, communities, religious authorities and the local administration need to recognise and control trafficking and bonded labour in villages. Intensive campaigns must educate communities about the threat and modus operandi of trafficking agents, especially in the source areas such as Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam. Railways and transport facilities have to be intensely monitored.
While on one hand, awareness around existing Government’s social welfare schemes and the means to access them should be generated; the Government must also immediately initiate the registration of unorganised workers. Special financial protection should be extended for the next year in order to keep the wolf away from the door.
The impending humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the ongoing global health crisis is real. Our foresight and preparedness in the midst of the current lockdown can save the lives of crores of women, men and children and build a strong economic foundation of the economy. The value of human life and the collective effort to protect it goes beyond this temporary period of the lockdown.
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*Bachpan Bachao Andolan

Comments

Unknown said…
This is a very interesting piece. It is so concerning how the most vulnerable people are becoming even more vulnerable amongst the COVID-19 crisis. It becomes a challenging issue for people who are trying to help, with so much negative to focus on at once.

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