Child trafficking surges in Bihar as parents have no work nor wages in the COVID-19 pandemic

Between July and September 2020, about 250 kids from Bihar have been rescued from child trafficking. Many were put to work for 15 hours daily in the bangle-making factories in Rajasthan for Rs 2,500/month.

Umesh Kumar Ray
| Updated: Last updated on January 11th, 2021,

One of the 136 children recently rescued from bangle factories in Jaipur returning by train. Photo: Special Arrangement

Gaya, Bihar.
Till Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown in March this year to control the spread of COVID-19, thirteen-year-old Ranjit (name changed), a resident of Chakand village in Gaya district of Bihar, used to study in the local  government school. With the school shut and his poor parents losing their job as daily wagers, one fine day, Ranjit was made to board a bus that took him 1,200-kilometre away from his home to Jaipur in Rajasthan to work in a bangle making factory. 

“Ranjit was studying in school, but the school closed due to the lockdown. Poverty at home drove him to leave the village along with a few more children headed to the same bangle factory,” Pravesh Bind, Ranjit’s father who works at a brick kiln, told Gaon Connection. 

Along with Ranjit, 15-year-old Mukesh (name changed) from Kujap village in Gaya district in Bihar was also trafficked to work at the same bangle factory in Jaipur. 

“I work in the fields for eight to ten hours a day and get five kilos of rice as wages… We had no money due to the lockdown, so Mukesh moved to Jaipur,” Parvati Devi, Mukesh’s mother, told Gaon Connection. “Her husband Madan Chaudhary worked at a construction site and lost his job to the lockdown and is still unemployed. “There was no work during the lockdown. We had to borrow money to run the family. We had no choice [but to let Mukesh go and work at Jaipur],” she added helplessly. 

Parvati Devi, mother of Mukesh who was trafficked during the lockdown said there was no work due to the lockdown and hence Mukesh had to go to Jaipur. Photo: Umesh Kumar Ray

The heart wrenching story of trafficking of children due to the combined effect of poverty and COVID-19 lockdown is playing out in various districts of Bihar, which is soon going to polls.  Several kids have been trafficked in the state by the middlemen with the knowledge and consent of poor parents. 

Between July and September this year, about 250 children hailing from Bihar alone have been rescued from child trafficking, according to data from officials of the state’s Child Welfare Organization, the Social Welfare Department and Child Protection Unit. Twenty one children were rescued from Kolkata in West Bengal; 14 from factories in Delhi; 15 were intercepted in an Amritsar bound train; six were rescued from Dehri-on-Sone in Bihar, six more from Mokama in Bihar and Koderma in Jharkhand and 19 from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. 

Last year, between January and December, as per the National Crime Records Bureau data, 294 minor children from Bihar were rescued from across the country. This year, in the last three months alone, 250 kids from the state have been rescued. 

“We were apprehensive that child trafficking would increase due to the COVID-19 crisis. To prevent this, we have a team made up of members of the Child Welfare Committee, Labour Department officials, Childline officials and NGOs,” Vijay Kumar, deputy labour commissioner (Gaya), told Gaon Connection.

For now, both Ranjit and Mukesh have been rescued and brought back to their homes in Bihar where they are currently in quarantine. But, there is no guarantee that they won’t again be made to board another bus to take them hundreds of kilometres away to work as child labourers. These kids, and their families, have little choice.

The impunity with which children are being trafficked in the state is frightening. Even with elections around the corner, there seems to be no political will to stem the rot. “Children are not voters, so no political parties bother about them. Leave alone trafficking, even malnutrition of children, or their lack of education are not election issues,” Rupesh, a Patna-based social activist, told Gaon Connection

Clearly, children are becoming increasingly vulnerable with the employment crisis brought about by COVID-19. Millions of migrant labourers have returned to Bihar due to the lockdown. They are jobless, have no food and are desperate. 

Brokers are exploiting the desperation of these poverty stricken families and persuading them to send their children to work as labour in factories far away from home. Many of these children from Bihar end up working as child labour, across the country, with the promise of boarding, lodging and a wage to send back home. Of the total 250 kids rescued between July and September, 136 children were rescued from bangle factories alone in Jaipur.  The rest have been rescued from other states including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and West Bengal. 

A report prepared by Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation titled, A fair share for children: Preventing the loss of a generation to COVID-19, states that poverty will increase due to COVID-19 and a one per cent increase in poverty may increase child labour by 0.7 per cent in some countries. It fears that with regular incomes being drastically cut down, the risk of children being pushed into trafficking and commercial exploitation, with their families needing additional income to survive, gets very real.

Rs 2,500-3,000: the cost of childhood

Gaon Connection’s investigation into the recent cases of child trafficking in Bihar shows that exploiting the situation, brokers or dalals offer anything between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,000 to the desperate families to send their child to work in other states. In the case of Mukesh, his parents claim they got nothing because the broker bought him a ticket for that amount for the 1,125 kms journey Gaya to Jaipur. The family was left only with an assurance that once the boy began work, the wages would be sent to them.

The children are promised about Rs 2,500 per month for their work at the factories but they seldom get to see the money. 

“The broker had paid Rs 2,500 to my father for sending me to the bangle factory,” 12-year-old Manohar Manjhi (name changed) narrated to Gaon Connection. His father, Sanoj Manjhi is a landless labourer and a daily wage earner. “I was forced to work in the bangle factory for fifteen hours daily with other children. If there was any defect in the bangle the owner would beat us. Sometimes they served food very late,” said Manohar who was rescued in May this year. He has returned home to Men village in Gaya. 

“I was forced to work in the bangle factory for 15 hours daily with other children. If there was any defect in the bangle, the owner would beat us,” 12-year-old Manohar Manjhi. Pic: Umesh Kumar Ray

The problem of child labour is nothing new in Bihar, say social activists in the state. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2018, five hundred and thirty seven minor children from Bihar were rescued. Out of this, 77 were rescued from forced child labour and 73  from sexual exploitation. Similarly in 2017, three hundred and ninety five minor children were rescued, out of which 366 were heading into forced child labour. 

Transporting children to work in Jaipur has been happening for years. Fifteen-year-old Birendra Kumar (name changed) from Morangpur, Gaya was rescued from a bangle factory there. “In 2016, I went to Jaipur through a broker. The broker immediately paid my father two thousand rupees and sent me off. I lived with fifteen other children in a room at the bangle factory,” he told Gaon Connection

“We used to start work at seven in the morning and had to work continuously till eleven in the night,” he continued to narrate. “We were served food thrice during sixteen hours of rigorous work. But, the food did not fill my stomach. There were no weekly breaks except for seven hours relaxation on Sundays,” Birendra added. According to him, none of the children working at the bangle factory was allowed to go out and even if one of them fell sick, they were not taken to the doctor. Medicines were brought to them. 

Birendra said he was promised a monthly wage of Rs 3,000 but the owner had said he would pay up in bulk when the boy left back for his village. When the police rescued him in 2018, he had already put in two years of hard labour. But he got paid nothing. “The owner absconded, so I did not get my money,” he said. 

Thus, 15-year-old Birendra never got his earning of Rs 72,000 for which he toiled 16 hours daily, on a half empty stomach, for two years. 

15-year-old Birendra never got his earning of Rs 72,000 for which he toiled 16 hours daily, on a half empty stomach, for two years. Pic: Umesh Kumar Ray

Desperate and devious 

“Trafficking of children has increased due to schools shutting down and families losing their sources of income,” Suresh Kumar, executive secretary of Centre Direct, a Patna-based non-profit working against child labour,  told Gaon Connection.

UNICEF and the Population Council Institute have jointly released a report, Returning home: Effects of COVID-19 on migrant households in Bihar, which says, 51 per cent of the migrant labourers lost their livelihood during lockdown, whereas earnings of 30 per cent of households’ declined.

Recently, Gaon Connection released findings of its national rural survey on the impact of COVID-19 on rural India with 25,300 respondents spread across 179 districts in 23 states/union territories. It found that in Bihar, only 13 per cent rural households got work under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005). To make ends meet during the lockdown, a large number of villagers borrowed money, mortgaged or sold land, jewellery, etc. In Bihar, such rural respondent households were 41 per cent.  

In this pandemic, the dalals seem to be making a killing as they devise new ways of evading the law. While the usual mode of sending the children off to work was by train, post the lockdown, buses are the favoured mode of transport.  

“In the last one and a half months, most of the children rescued were from buses,” Vijay Kewat, another official of  Centre Direct, who has taken part in several raids, told Gaon Connection.  

For instance, on August 19, a Rajasthan bound bus was intercepted at Dehri-on-Sone in Rohtas, Bihar. Six children who were on it, were on their way to Jaipur. “The children revealed that the desperate economic condition of their families due to the lockdown had made them board the bus to go and work in the bangle factories,” Sunil Kumar, officer from the Child Protection Unit, Rohtas district, told Gaon Connection

He also revealed that the Aadhaar cards the children were carrying were tampered with. “Some of the rescued children looked very young. In a medical examination, one of them was found to be two or three years younger than his age recorded in the Aadhaar card,” said Sunil Kumar.   

Desperate poverty has forced the parents to become complicit in the trafficking for child labour. Brokers are persuading the parents to travel along with the children to the factories. “To avoid suspicion, parents now accompany their children to the factories, and in case they are intercepted by the authorities, they say they are travelling to visit relatives,” Raj Kumar, director, social welfare directorate, admitted to Gaon Connection. “In such a situation, we can’t stop them because we have no basis to grill them,” he added. 

Backward caste kids trafficked the most

According to data from the State Labour department, most of the rescued children belonged to Musahars, Pasi, Paswan and other backward communities (the deductions were made on the basis of children’s surname). For instance, of the 160 children rescued in 2015-2016, seventy six were from the Musahar community, which is considered MahaDalit community in Bihar. The next year, in 2016-2017 of the 284 children rescued, 118 belonged to the Musahars too. With no access to food or education, these children were vulnerable to exploitation.

Assembly elections are just weeks away, but the enormous problem of child labour and trafficking has not yet come up on the agenda of any political party. Not a single party or leader has raised this issue yet. 

“To stop child trafficking you need to give employment to the downtrodden communities; you have to ensure education and food for their children,” D M Diwakar, Patna-based political analyst and economist, told Gaon Connection. “The government will have to take pro-poor development issues forward. But these may not garner votes. So political parties push only those issues that can electorally benefit them,” he added. 

In the meanwhile, some state agencies are taking measures to tackle the problem. “Child protection units have been set up in Aurangabad and Gaya panchayats. They will be coming up in other panchayats as well,” Raj Kumar, director of the social welfare directorate informed Gaon Connection. “There will be ward members in each unit who will know the children better and can keep tabs on anyone who might be in danger of being sent off to other states to work. They will keep us informed and help us take prompt action,” he added.