Call for action
The new wave of child trafficking cases in Bihar demands decisive corrective action by the concerned authorities without resorting to lip service, excuses or half measures
It has not been a long since all of us saw the gut-wrenching images of thousands of anxious men and women rendered jobless due to the post-Corona lockdown walking the highways in worn footwear or bare feet with their children and meagre belongings. We were all witness to the reverse migration which caused untold miseries to the poor from the rural areas who had flocked to the cities in search of employment. Now, with most restrictions imposed by the lockdown have been lifted, another humanitarian crisis is unfolding, especially in some of the poor northern and eastern states.
The crisis now unfolding is that of the trafficking of children. Poor families who have lost their livelihood due to the lockdown and consequent slowdown of the economy are now faced with hunger and starvation. Children of all such families are susceptible to trafficking and easy fodder for the traffickers. The spectre of child trafficking today looms large over the rural areas of states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Assam.
Even before the cities started humming with life once again, there were reports of rescues of child labourers from different parts of India — Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh.
This time the means and methods employed by the human traffickers are novel and different. Instead of using trains to traffic children from 'source' to 'receiving' states or cities, the traffickers are now deploying buses to traffic children. This trend so far has been most notable in the case of Bihar. Buses have originated from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, have travelled to some select districts in Bihar notorious for child trafficking, 'picked up' under-aged children and proceeded for their return inter-state journeys to deliver the children to prospective employers. A few buses have been intercepted in joint operations by some vigilant NGOs and state government departments, while many are suspected to have gotten away.
One measure of the spike in cases of child trafficking, as recorded by a Delhi-based NGO, is the rescue of 757 children from different places across India within the lockdown months. This also bespeaks a lack of political will, especially among decision-makers in the 'source' states to crack down on this form of crime presumably because child trafficking is not considered heinous enough to merit the attention of political representatives and officialdom.
Bihar, which has attained notoriety insofar as trafficking in children is concerned, in 2018, of the 1,170 persons trafficked out of the state, 539 were children. It is no surprise that Bihar, where 395 child trafficking cases were recorded in 2017, the number shot up to 539, leaving behind Karnataka, Rajasthan and Delhi. A recent study by the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation revealed that 54 per cent of child labourers rescued in Delhi by Bachpan Bachao Andolan were from Bihar.
Tragically, the political parties of Bihar, without exception, and successive governments have never addressed the issue of child trafficking with the seriousness it deserves. They have 'routinised' the discourse by their spurious argument that Bihar is a poor state where there are not enough jobs and so migrant and child labourers go elsewhere to earn their living.
The countrywide issue of returnee labourers and their children, who have suffered enough, caught the imagination of Indians at large but certainly not of the political parties. There have been no words of solace or comfort from them. What has been heard is a deafening and cynical silence, smug in their belief that life and death issues related to child labourers and trafficking could be brushed under the carpet.
The responsibility for decisions on children's safety and welfare has traditionally been seen to be vested with adults who care for them. It is also believed that adults not only are better placed to exercise the responsibility of decision-making on behalf of children but that they do so for the latter's best interests. This begs the question: when child trafficking, exploitation and abuse of children occur routinely, why do political parties not take these vital social issues seriously?
Policies for child welfare and protection are a subset of national welfare policies. However, an analysis of the current state of child welfare policies and practices of state governments reveals that while the laws and regulations are in place, there is a complete lack of sensitivity and commitment to child protection and welfare. The law enforcement officials do not have as their central focus on the needs of vulnerable children or the protection of children from abuse.
In a research paper in 1991 ('The Child and the State in India: Child Labor and Education Policy in Comparative Perspective'), celebrated MIT scholar Myron Weiner wrote: 'It is the absence of strong support for governmental intervention within the state apparatus itself and the absence of a political coalition outside the state apparatus pressing for governmental intervention that explains Indian policy' on child labour. Indeed, Weiner predicted that 'barring a conceptual change in the thinking of those who implement policy and a new direction in policy by the Indian Government, the number of children in the labour force will not significantly change'.
Child protection institutions such as the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights have a greater role to play in exhorting the political class to bring child trafficking and traffickers as a core issue, especially in Bihar. Besides, village migration registers that will keep a record of the movement of children from the villages need to be introduced, they will be an effective deterrent for the traffickers. To begin with, such registers could be maintained in each of the villages in ten Bihar districts where child trafficking is rampant and where over the last one month or so several cases have been detected following the launch of an awareness drive by an NGO.
Creation of employment opportunities, especially those which could be linked to social sector schemes in the ten districts is likely to have positive results insofar as curbing child trafficking is concerned. Once the Bihar elections are over and the newly elected representatives take office, a special committee that would monitor whether below poverty line (BPL) category people are being linked to social development schemes needs to be set up.
What is needed is serious strategic planning and creative institutional designed aspects that political parties could set out in their pre-electoral manifestos and then implement when one of them assumes power. Platitudes, lip service or a banal approach to children safety and their rights must give way for focused, time-bound and coordinated action.
The writer is a former chairperson of the Bihar State Commission for Protection of Children. Views expressed are personal