Kolkata: Sourav Baidya (11) accompanies his father every morning to the market at Garia, southern Kolkata, to sell seasonal fruits. He could only study till class 6 at the local Mahamayapur Secondary School as his father couldn’t afford the fees during the pandemic. Books are a thing of the past for him.
Baidya is among the increasing number of students in West Bengal who quit school to take up menial jobs. Though the data on the number of child labourers, as per the National Sample Survey Organisation data, is of the pre-pandemic period, the number is probably high considering that several students haven’t rejoined schools.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 10.11 million (4.35 million main workers plus 5.76 million marginal workers) child labourers in the 5-14 age group. However, only main workers are considered as child labourers in government reports. Furthermore, the total number of adolescent labourers is 22.87 million, bringing the total number of child and adolescent labourers (5-18 years) to 33 million.
According to the Census, 56% of the working adolescents no longer attend schools. The next Census, due in 2021, was delayed due to the pandemic. Considering the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, these numbers are surely to increase.
Unlike Baidya, other children working at teashops and groceries in the same locality have never attended school. They started working immediately after migrating from their villages at the age of seven-plus, served tea to customers, washed utensils and other menial jobs for their employers.
Many of the child workers in south Kolkata belong to far-flung areas of South and North 24 Parganas like Sundarbans, Mathurapu, Lakshmikantapur, Gosaba and Basanti. Unable to feed the young mouths, their parents virtually sell them off to teashop owners in lieu of monthly wages and collect the amount every month when they visit their children.
A 2021 survey conducted by the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) among 818 children in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, which is ahead of West Bengal in human development index, revealed a significant increase in the percentage of child labourers from 28.2% to 79.6%.
R. Vidyasagar, adviser for CACL, told The Hindu, “There is a big jump in the proportion of working children from 28.2% to 79.6% because of the impact of COVID-19 and school closure. We interviewed a total of 818 children and out of them, 553 children were in school prior to the pandemic and 265 were not in school and most of them were working. After the schools were closed, 419 of the 553 children who were in school began working.”
Though the Centre has pledged to end child labour by 2025, it has discontinued the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) and merge it with the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). Under the project, children studied, upgraded their skills and were paid monthly stipends of Rs 400 each at Special Training Centres (STCs). Besides, the 4,000-plus teachers employed under the project at a low honorarium that is pending for the last 30-60 months face a dark future.
“After writing several letters to the Union labour ministry, we have decided to protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, on June 21,” SK Firoz, secretary, NCLP STC Staff Association, told Newsclick.
The SSA is not focused on STCs in general and child labour in particular. For the moment, STCs run by NCLP District Project Society comprising staff with suitable qualification and vast experience for the cause of child labour are doing the job.