Published: 27th August 2021
Learning lessons, not from textbook, but hard-knock life: The life of a child labourer in India
With the pandemic running into its second year, social workers said that financial situations in many rural families had worsened. Several parents were forced to send their wards to daily-wage works
The recent electrocution of a 13-year-old boy in Villupuram district, while erecting a flag pole, has exposed deeper problems in society. With school moving online and his family struggling amid the pandemic, the boy was forced to work and contribute to the household income.
He was not alone in his plight as Express found that the district has seen a spike in the number of children engaged in child labour since the COVID-lockdowns began last year. This could be attributed to a loss of livelihood and the halt of in-person schooling. Local activists concurred with the findings.
About 30 per cent of the district’s rural population had been employed in other districts until the pandemic struck. The lockdown forced them to stay at home and take up any jobs that came their way, to make their ends meet. With the pandemic running into its second year, social workers said that financial situations in many rural families had worsened. Several parents were forced to send their wards to daily-wage works, including construction, event decorations, street vending, and the likes.
For instance, 16-year-old Prakash (name changed) runs a tiny grocery shop on the Villupuram-Mambalpattu road. His mother, K Karpagam, had been employed in Chennai until she lost her job due to the pandemic. In order to help his striving mother, that is when Prakash decided to set up the shop.
“I take care of the shop until noon. and sometimes, also listen to the online classes on the phone. We took a loan for Rs 10,000 from a local money-lender to set up this shop. I earn around Rs 300 a day, in addition to my mother’s daily income of Rs 200,” said Prakash.
‘Policy-level decision needed to eradicate child labour’
Similarly, Srikanth (name changed), a class 12 student from Koliyanur, was spotted digging the earth at land plots near Thiruvamathur. Srikanth and his brother had no other choice after their father, G Periyasamy, fell sick during the lockdown. Periyasamy injured his leg while working at a construction site last year.
"The family is in a bad shape. My brother and I took up plot works, and that yields us Rs 500 a day. So, sometimes I skip online classes or listen to it on Kalvi channel later in the day. We take care of father's medical expense and run the house," said Srikanth.
These are not isolated cases. Many children were forced to take up jobs to ensure their families' survival, and similar was the case with the teen who got electrocuted. Activists working with rural children said the district administration needed to intervene in the issue immediately and arrive at a sociological solution to curb the pandemic-forced child labour. U Karkee, a member of a non-profit organisation working with rural students in Villupuram, told Express, "The district has always been backward educationally.
The reasons are many, but the pandemic has added to the children's burden here, for they have to balance their lives between the new online education system and their family's survival. Leaving this trend unattended will affect the social development index of the district. So, we urge the District Social Welfare Department, the School Education Department, and others to intervene in the issue." Pari, who runs a free competitive exams coaching centre for students from marginalised families in Villupuram, said,
"The District Education Department must ensure that all students in the respective schools attend the online classes or at least a teacher must visit the students once a week to ensure their education is not interrupted. Further, a policy-level decision, addressing this pandemic-driven poverty, must be announced across the State to save rural children from child labour."
Speaking to Express, Collector D Mohan said, "Process for rigorous eradication of the issue is underway and certainly, we will come out with a long term solution to it."