Maharashtra sees rise in number of working children during COVID years

A large number of children have been found to be working in the agriculture sector in rural districts, with Jalna, Nandurbar and Parbhani faring poorly in terms of numbers gathered from the ground

Kamal MishraUpdated: Wednesday, June 15, 2022, 03:38 PM IST
Child labourer (Representative Image) | Voices of Youth

Mumbai: The pandemic and the lockdown that followed over the last two years has deeply affected the education and overall well-being of children in rural as well as urban areas of Maharashtra.

An observation and monitoring exercise carried out by child rights NGO, Child Rights and You – CRY along with its partner organisations in the grass roots found large number of children working in agriculture as well as other industries.

Reality bites from the rural districts

CRY has been working in 6 rural districts in Maharashtra on the issues of education and protection for a number of years and the pandemic has set us back significantly.

Within CRY intervention areas in these districts the number of children who are in child labour or working in agriculture has been observed to have risen since 2020 when the pandemic hit. The total number has gone from 2556 in 2020 to 3356 in 2021 and is currently 3309 in 2022.

Explaining the reasons behind the rise, Kreeanne Rabadi, Director, CRY (West) said, “Closure of schools, lack of access to internet connectivity and mobile phones for online classes, financially stress of the families with huge job losses as well as the long strike of state run bus services seemed to have affected children’s academic prospects’ in rural areas, thereby forcing them to work in agriculture as well as in family run enterprises. Within CRY intervention areas in Maharashtra, close to 55% children accessed online education because of their linkage with Activity Centres and access to digital learning aids (tablets).”

Some of the observations on children who are working are as follows:

Children have unfortunately felt the burden of their family’s financial conditions and have preferred to work rather than go to school

There were children who claimed to accompany their parents to work in fields earning alongside them anywhere between Rs 100 to Rs 500 per day.

Often these earnings have been ulitized to purchase textbooks, school uniforms, payment of fees as well as other essentials. Worryingly, a few children have been observed to spend their earnings on tobacco products

There are children who have complained of allergic reactions to fertilizers and other chemicals used in agriculture

Children have migrated to neighbouring cities for work. These children often work as waiters or in brick kilns, as helpers, beggars and labourers in cities of Mumbai, Pune, Daund, Beed, Manmad, Aurangabad and Nashik. Many also migrate to work in sugarcane harvesting, irrigation, cultivation of agricultural land, sowing or planting, intercropping, threshing, spraying etc.

The urban scenario

In cities too, CRY found that a large number of children, despite attending online classes are opting to work. In Mumbai’s two intervention areas, CRY found the pandemic and the lockdown to have had a multilayered impact on families that were on the margins in urban centres.

All were affected to some degree, some were severely affected in the form of loss of jobs and some with reduced wages. In the initial period of the pandemic, children were without any school. When online classes started, with an acute digital divide, many children lost the opportunity to get connected to online education.

Several families did not have adequate gadgets for all children to get connected. Households started running out of data packages, and with no income coming in, many children had to opt out of online education. In many households, children were forced to work as parents lost jobs.

In CRY’s programmes in Mumbai namely in Bandra’s Rahul Nagar, Sion Koliwada and Mankhurd’s Cheetah Camp, it has been observed that out of 589 children in the age group of 14 to 18 years, 145 children are currently involved in a different kind of jobs of which 84 girls are engaged in household chores like cooking, sweeping, washing clothes and utensils and taking care of elderly or young ones.

For the girls who have started working, there has been an additional responsibility post-pandemic as their mothers have taken up some form of employment.

Boys are mostly employed as delivery boys, carpenters, garage and salespeople. Their working hours vary between 8 -10 hours, few of them who are doing delivery and are working as sales persons end up working up to 12 hours.

Adolescent girls suffered from mental agony, uncertainties about their future, and isolation from peers. Many of them were actively thinking of dropping out of schools and colleges till the household situation improved.

“More investment is needed in programs to get children out of the workforce and back into schools, and increased efforts need to be made to provide social protection for families so that they don’t have to make the difficult choice of pulling their children out of education and putting them to work,” Kreeanne Rabadi said.

There also seem to be remarkable perception gaps in the society at large, when it comes to understanding the core issue of child labour and its increasing magnitude during the pandemic times.

A rapid assessment survey on social perception of child labour conducted online by CRY volunteers, with 752 respondents (in Maharashtra) found that there was some level of understanding of the issue amongst the public, with 65% of respondents believing that lack of money or poverty is the reason for child labour, and 84 % believing that labour practices have increased after the COVID pandemic.

While 35% believed there are over 1 crore child labourers in Maharashtra, surely an overestimate, but at least there has been an agreement to the fact that this is a widespread issue.

The more troubling finding however was that 47 % believed that it is it is okay for children to work to support their families as long as they continue going to school.

Clearly, an understanding needs to be built that the physical and psychological toll on children who are simultaneously working and going to school can be significant – they are being deprived of a childhood and are likely to drop out of education.

According to Kreeanne Rabadi, Director, CRY (West), this is a critical moment for children because there is now a whole generation that is at risk of entering the workforce and being lost to the cycle of poverty.

“There is hence a need to build mass awareness on the issues related to child labour and its detrimental effects on children. All children, regardless of their background, deserve a childhood where they can learn, play, and grow in a healthy manner,” she said.

CRY - Child Rights and You - is an Indian NGO that believes in every child’s right to a childhood - to live, learn, grow and play.

For over 4 decades, CRY and its 850 initiatives have worked with parents and communities to ensure Lasting Change in the lives of more than 3,000,000 underprivileged children, across 19 states in India.

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