Rising child labour cause of worry in TN

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Rising child labour is a major issue plaguing Tamil Nadu amid the state chalking out grandiose plans for marching ahead in 2022. Ever since Covid-19 lashed the country, experts on migration studies had warned of the possibility of orphaned children being taken away for jobs either by luring them into traps or being forced out of homes.

A recent study conducted by the Socio-Economic Development Foundation (SEDF), an NGO working on development and migration studies, has found that child labour among vulnerable communities in the state has increased by more than 200% compared to the pre-Covid times.

The study that was conducted in 20 districts of Tamil Nadu and was led by Dr R. Padmanabhan, Director of the SEDF, found that the number of children working to support their families has increased from 200 before Covid to around 620 after the pandemic. The study also revealed that most of the children who took up employment were from the poor strata of society and vulnerable communities like the SC/ST.

More than 30 per cent of the children are working in the manufacturing sector, while 26 per cent are working in the service sector. Agriculture and cottage industries including the match factories and firecracker units of Sivakasi are a major source of employment to these children.

Padmanabhan told IANS: “The study revealed some startling data. Several children who were orphaned after their parents died due to Covid were forced into the labour market, either by force or by luring them. Around 90 per cent of the children who were going to school have dropped out and they have started earning. Another aspect we haven’t touched is bonded labour which we have to study separately but the inputs we receive from the industry is that bonded labour is rampant among child labourers and a detailed investigation under risky conditions has to be undertaken for this.”

Muralidharan, a 14-year-old boy in Erode who is now a labourer in the agriculture plantation of a nearby wealthy landlord, told IANS: “My mother died and my father has left home. I am living with my grandparents who are not in a position to work and I have opted for agriculture labour near my home. I get money and I am happy.”

While Muralidharan does not understand the need for education rather than opting for an agriculture labour job at a tender age, the system prevalent is creating an environment where children are forced into the labour market.

Sunitha Maheswari who was part of the survey and study of the SEDF while speaking to IANS said: “Most of the children went for labour following the precarious financial situation at home and the loss of jobs of the parents and guardians due to the pandemic. Pushed to starvation what else can one do. It is alarming and the government has to act. Child protection mechanisms have to work in tandem with the health, education and police departments to prevent the rising child labour or else a large number of bright talents will be lost to the society.”

To reduce such forced child labour,village-level child protection committees have to be activated and teachers should ensure that children who were studying prior to the pandemic have returned to the classes, which unfortunately has not happened in several cases.

Experts have also suggested that the government machinery must be active and vigilant so that child labour is done away with.

R. Mohanaguruswamy, who retired as a child protection officer in the Tamil Nadu government, said that regular studies of the vulnerable communities must be undertaken and the child protection department must work in tandem with the police and conduct surprise checks in factories and cottage industries.

Another sad fact, according to activists, is the lack of support from the Union government to the flagship National Child Labour project in Tamil Nadu where 4314 children rescued from child labour were undergoing special skills training and getting a stipend of Rs 400 per month. Sources in the child protection committee of the state government said that since the past two years, there has been no financial support from the Centre to this project leading to an uncertain future for the children who were undergoing skill development training.

There are 225 centres in 15 districts of Tamil Nadu and children who are rescued as child labourers undergo two years’ training at these centres before they are enrolled in nearby government schools. The Central government is supposed to pay them a monthly stipend of Rs 400 during this period while the state provides them uniforms, books, footwear and midday meals.

A teacher working in such a project told IANS on condition of anonymity that “we are given Rs 7,000 as honorarium by the government but since the last several months we have not been getting any money and there is no other option but to quit. Another fact is that we are not able to convince the parents of the children why they are not getting the monthly stipend”.

Nataraj S.C, Director, Service Unit for Development Activities in Rural, an NGO that runs six units in Erode district, told IANS that “the rescued children will not be able to manage in the mainstream schools and they will leave classes and end up as labourers again. The project which was started after conducting proper studies now does not have even the basic support system. Child labour cannot be eradicated by just taking pledges, we have to work for it”.

Tamil Nadu Labour Department officials when contacted said that they have already written to the Government of India regarding funds disbursal and student stipends.

A senior officer on condition of anonymity said: “Government procedures as you know are cumbersome, we have written several letters and the reply is that they are taking action but nothing has happened as of now. We have got support from several NGOs who are running many centres but beyond a point, without funding support, it will not work and throw these children into the labour market again where people are waiting to swoop on them.”

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