Surya is the child of a migrant worker who lives in a makeshift home near the railway platform in Puri. His father used to make a living out of selling handicrafts made of seashells to tourists. Today, Surya wonders how they are going to survive, as it’s been almost 2.5 months since the lockdown began. In his words: “We have nowhere to go, no guarantee that we will have food – we are left to die of hunger.”
Another child from Khajuraho, aged around 10, says, “I’m happy that there are people who’re bringing cooked food for those of us who live on the streets. I wait for them to come and eat my lunch there but I stay hungry till the next day when lunch is provided. We are living in complete uncertainty – on someone’s pity and mercy.”
Though the reality of street-connected children is that they have to earn their meals by doing errands, the COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in little to no work for them. Besides this, the small eateries that sell cooked food at a reasonably affordable price have stopped operating due to the lockdown, making it difficult for children living on the streets and railway stations to access food.
Even children who accompany their parents who work in tourist spots show their resilience and enterprise by finding ways to earn. Though this is not typical of tourist places, these children are more visible as they sell trinkets or roam around with tourists for quick money, food and also take a bit of pride that they can connect with foreign tourists and learn to speak foreign languages.
Manab says that he has come to Digha from Kolkata with his parents, who work in a small eatery (his father is a waiter and his mother cleans utensils). He was admitted to a government school but never attended school except during the mid-day meal time. He formed his own group by the age of 12 and left home to live with his friends. He survived by taking up small jobs in hotels and dhabas. He is now 17, knows different languages and works as a photographer on the Digha beach, earning around Rs 400 a day. But the lockdown has snatched away his livelihood as there are no tourists on the beach. He has no money and no savings that can be used for his survival.
COVID-19 and the lockdown has led to children of migrant workers and daily wage labourers being deprived of food, adding to the burden of families who are not able to make ends meet due to loss of wages.
A child from Gokarna, about 16 years old, says with her eyes full of tears, “We may survive COVID-19, but not hunger. Today there are people and NGOs who are providing us with ration but I wonder for how long. My father used to sell vegetables on the roadside. Now he can’t go back to work as we don’t have any savings at all. Whatever little we had we spent on our food during this lockdown. I’m waiting for the lockdown to get over and then maybe we’ll all search for some work to survive.”
Tourism spots are characterised by the presence of migrant workers and many of these families live on the streets or in makeshift settlements, in unhygienic conditions without any social and economic security. As tourism was hit due to restrictions on travel, jobs that helped migrant workers earn some income in the unorganised tourism service, such as guides, local transporters, street vendors, small tea shops and trinket sellers, have vanished. Many migrants are having trouble paying the rent for the 6’/4’ rooms that they live in or able to afford decent meals in a day.
As per the 2011 census, the number of migrant children is huge in the states of Bihar (49,96,290), Madhya Pradesh (43,50,495), Karnataka (35,90,738) and Odisha (25,13,870). These numbers are still growing with the significance of tourism in these areas. Unable to go back, with no access to relief material because of lack of documents, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, these migrant children are bearing the brunt of the situation.
An NGO worker from Puri, Orissa worries that the children are going through a tough time without water, food and shelter, coupled with restrictions on their movement, and no way to practise preventive measures that could protect them from COVID-19. This pandemic has suddenly put children’s survival in jeopardy. The vulnerability of children in this situation has been highlighted by the United Nations as well.
“Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims. While they have thankfully been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19 – at least to date – the crisis is having a profound effect on their well-being,” according to ‘Policy Brief: The impact of COVID-19 on children’ released on April 15 by the UN.
Though the coronavirus pandemic is a huge crisis to be fought at this moment, hunger and starvation – the bigger crisis for the unorganised sector – is what workers are facing on a day-to-day basis. Almost all workers in the informal economy are faced by this grim reality but most of all its children.
The situation is no better for migrant workers returning to their homes with no means of survival. This further marginalisation makes them fall prey to traffickers for labour. It is a similar situation for children who ran away from home to escape abuse but now are returning to abusive homes in much tougher situations. Our conversations with people in different destinations highlight the fact that human trafficking networks are already active and working under the guise of being benevolent to the vulnerable, desperate families.
The vulnerability of the children of migrant workers has increased manifold during this crisis. Their need for services has gone up, isolation, physical distancing and limited access to child protection response mechanisms and disruption of safety nets has resulted in high susceptibility of children, particularly in tourism locations.
Among them, the condition of trafficked child labourers as well as children living on the streets is even worse. Though there are several relief announcements by the government, there have not been any specific announcements made by the state or central government to mitigate the suffering of children living in difficult circumstances, except the notification by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) on the preventive measures that need to be taken in Child Care Institutions.
An adequate assessment of the status of children living in difficult circumstances is less likely to happen during the COVID-19 crisis, as child protection agencies have reduced monitoring to avoid spreading the virus, and police are busy implementing lockdown orders. The situation is dire and uncertain. No one knows how long this will continue and how this will increase child poverty in a country like India.
We need to deal with the realities of their existence rather than ignore these children. This crisis should be treated as a humanitarian and socio-economic crisis that is going to last longer than we can estimate at this point of time.
The choices made by governments now are crucial, not only to mitigate the worst of the pandemic, but also to benefit children over the long term. We urge the NCPCR to take cognisance of the long-term impact of the lockdown on children living in difficult circumstances and implement the following:
a. Child protection services to be notified as emergency services
b. Quarantine centres to have separate arrangements for boys and girls to mitigate the risk of any form of physical or sexual exploitation
c. Child protection service personnel to be provided with necessary protective gear and permission to visit quarantine centres at least once a day to meet children, identify any risk and respond to their needs/requirements
d. NCPCR to call for an online consultation to develop an inter-sectoral strategy to respond to child rights concerns amidst this crisis
e. NCPCR to set up a mechanism to identify children orphaned by COVID-19 and expand networks of extended family and foster care
f. NCPCR to ensure economic assistance, including cash transfers, be provided to low-income families to help them meet basic needs without resorting to child labour or child marriage.
We appreciate that CHILDLINE has been given an exemption, but they require transport and protective gear to adequately respond to the needs of children in this crisis.
The need of the hour is to build a network of child protection services, including those being provided by civil society organisations, to facilitate a multi-sectoral approach to come up with a unified child rights response that is long-lasting.
For more information on other tourist locations, contact: info@
EQUATIONS (Equitable Tourism Options) is a research, campaign and advocacy organisation that studies the social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of tourism on local communities.
Siddhi Pendke is a Programme Coordinator at EQUATIONS. Joyatri Ray is the Director of EQUATIONS.