New Delhi: The COVID-19 pandemic will result in “most definite and substantial increase” in child labour, child trafficking and slavery across the world, warned Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi as he prepares to send an SOS tomorrow in a global event called ‘Laureates and Leaders for Children Summit 2020’ attended by the global who’s who including WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the Dalai Lama along with Prime Ministers and Presidents of different nations.
In an exclusive interview to IANS, Satyarthi, also said that India’s labour law dilution in certain states will spike child labour while prolonged closure of schools in India puts many children at the risk of being trafficked.
Q: Since the lockdown began, the Childline India Helpline has received around 4,60,000 calls seeking protection against domestic abuse and violence. How serious is the concern for India?
A: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were moving slowly but surely in an upward path towards protecting children, in most parts of the world. But even before the COVID-induced lockdowns, progress in the child-related SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) had plateaued and inequality was growing. India has been no exception. The existing inequalities and absence of social protection has been exposed and exacerbated due to the pandemic.
The arrival of COVID-19, not only halted progress but with the hugely unequal COVID-19 response from world leaders, we are now at great risk of turning the clock back on the progress of the past few decades. Children are the worst-impacted in any form of disaster but with COVID-19, the impact has been unprecedented. There will be a most definite and substantial increase in child labour, child trafficking and slavery across the world. What we are witnessing today is an imminent and the most severe crisis for children in our times, and if we fail to act now we risk losing an entire generation.
Q: What message do you wish to send to the world leaders through laureates and leader for the Children Summit that will have the likes of the WHO Chief and Dalai Lama in attendance?
A: A pandemic is an act of nature, but if millions starve and millions of children are denied an education and become child labourers it will be a compassion-less and unequal response to the crisis that will be to blame.
In May this year, I joined 88 Nobel Laureates to sign a joint statement demanding that 20% of the COVID-19 response be allocated to the most marginalised 20% children and their families. This is the minimum fair share for children. Even if you only look at the $5-trillion package announced in the first few weeks of the pandemic, 20% of that is $1 trillion, enough funding to fund all the COVID-19 UN Appeals, cancel 2 years of debt for low-income countries, provide the external funding required for two years of the Sustainable Development Goals on Education and Water and Sanitation and a full 10 years of the external funding for the Health-related SDGs.
A fair share of the current estimated $ 8 trillion of government aid would mitigate the increase child hunger and food insecurity; tackle the increase in child labour and slavery, the denial of education and the heightened vulnerability of children on the move such as child refugees and displaced children. These are the areas of immediate criticality.
If we can prevent the devastating impact of COVID-19 on these areas, if we can reduce the inequality in the world’s COVID-19 response, if we ensure the most vulnerable receive their Fair Share, we can then be in a position to salvage the future of our children.
Q: Has India done enough to protect its children during the pandemic?
A: While efforts have been made in this direction, no government has done enough to protect its children during the pandemic. And I ask you to not take my word on this. I am only a voice for the most left-behind child. I ask you to assess the responses of governments by the reality being faced by the children in the country. The most marginalised child who died of starvation or a child who is being trafficked for child labour or sexual exploitation because of the loss of employment of their parents is the only true judge of any nation’s humanitarian response to the pandemic.
Q: With the dilution of labour laws in certain states and thrust to boost the economy, are you afraid that child labour will be on the rise in India?
A: A humanitarian response to the ongoing crisis would have entailed strengthening of labour laws and their compliance, especially those that protect labour rights, welfare and security. We cannot afford to reverse the progress made over decades in labour rights and protection as well as eradication of child labour, under the pretext of a pandemic.
The Indian government must seize this opportunity to bring forth legislation that deters the engagement of child labour in India by international business supply chains. This will give a boost to the Indian economy through the creation of jobs for adults, greater investment by international companies that need to comply with labour standards of their countries, and promote ease of business through transparent and reliable supply chains. This is the correct way forward, from both humanitarians from economic perspectives.
Q: Which Indian state, to your mind, has fared worst in terms of protecting children during the lockdown and afterwards?
A: We should refrain from having a fragmented outlook to the nation at this time of crisis. We need to be united as one country and support one another, only then can we emerge from these testing times.
The entire country needs to first allocate fair and adequate resources to the needs and challenges faced by the most marginalised communities of the country. There will most definitely be a substantial increase in child labour and trafficking in India as a result of COVID-19. The COVID-induced health, economic, educational and social challenges are going to aggravate these risks.
If we can allocate a fair share to children and reduce the inequality in the world’s COVID-19 response, only then we can arrest the already devastating impact of COVID-19 on children in the present.
Q: The West is reopening schools, but India is still cautious about it. Do you think the time for the reopening of schools in India has come?
A: That is for the government to decide. The decision to reopen schools is not a simple one, especially when we have the risk of the health and lives of children on one side, and on the other side, we have the risk of denial of education.
Nonetheless, school closures have not only caused massive drop-outs of children who are now at heightened risk of being trafficked but it has also led to the denial of midday meals that has affected their health and nutrition. India must develop a definitive roadmap for reopening of schools, reduce the digital divide for online education and ensure that all children are re-admitted and retained in schools as soon as possible.