Lockdown effected downturn to cause spike in child trafficking, SC told

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A Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, on Monday issued notice to the central government, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and nine states and asked the petitioner Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi-run non-governmental organisation (NGO), Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s counsel HS Phoolka and solicitor-general Tushar Mehta to work together and come up with solutions to curb the growing child trafficking menace in the country.

Earlier, the NGO in its plea said that the nationwide lockdown restrictions, which were imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, would lead to a spike in child trafficking cases because of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

The petitioner prayed that the Central government should frame appropriate policy and guidelines at the earliest in a bid to prevent child trafficking cases that are likely to go up among the marginalised sections of the society because of the growing economic crisis triggered by the raging viral outbreak in the country.

The plea, filed through advocate Jagjit Singh Chhabra, said: “The economic crisis, increased insecurity, poverty and marginalisation induced by Covid-19 are key drivers for families grasping onto straws of survival for pushing their children into trafficking.”

Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Delhi, Maharashtra and Telangana have been made a party to the case, as the petitioner received complaints about child trafficking from these states.

The petitioner pointed out that the lockdown has proved to be catastrophic for lakhs of migrant labourers and daily wage workers, who were forced to trek back to their villages, as they were staring at a sudden loss of their livelihood and an uncertain future.

“It’s a poignant reality that poverty and hunger awaits them, as they would have migrated (to cities) in the first place due to lack of work in their native villages. Many will be forced into a vicious debt cycle at predatory interest rates because of their dire financial situation, which will prove to be a fertile ground for child traffickers,” the petitioner said.

Child labour and sex trafficking are the two primary ways of this heinous crime, the petitioner highlighted.

“Children are trafficked first and then placed in labour, either forced or for a sub-minimal wage. However, the most unfortunate ones, particularly young boys and girls, are forced into sexual exploitation,” the plea argued.

The NGO contended that it received inputs from multiple sources that traffickers have become active and have started approaching potential victims and families and even started handing out advance payments for their children.

“Once lockdown is lifted and normal manufacturing activity resumes, factory owners will look to cover their financial losses by employing cheap labour and the easiest way of doing this is by employing child labour,” the plea stated.

CJI Bobde remarked that policing alone would not be a solution and the problem of child trafficking persists because there is a ready market for child labour. He said that contractors, who are engaged in supplying labour, should be kept under strict vigil in a bid to prevent child trafficking and child labour.

The apex court also contemplated setting up an expert committee to address the issue raised by the NGO.

However, no directions were passed to this effect on Monday and the matter was posted for the next hearing after two weeks.

“Policing alone will not do. You’ll have to find some measures to prevent contractors from employing children,” CJI Bobde said.

The petitioner claimed that the business of commercial sexual exploitation, which took a downturn due to the lockdown restrictions, would look for innovative ways to be back in business and overcome the losses by engaging younger girls, as they fetch higher returns.

“Underage girls will be sold into prostitution and the number of street children pushed into begging will also go up,” the plea warned.

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