Gaya, India – When 13-year-old child labourer Shashikant Manjhi died in May 2020, his body could not be transported to his family’s brick-and-mud home in the eastern state of Bihar, 1,126km (700 miles) from Rajasthan state’s Jaipur, where the boy had worked for over a year.
Lockdown restrictions made it impossible, explained the policeman who telephoned the news of the death to the boy’s family, promising to cremate the child respectfully.
Days later, Shashikant’s mother Sahuja Devi conducted the final rites of her last-born on an open field a few hundred metres away from their home. She used a doll fashioned out of paddy husk to represent the child she was consigning to the flames.
In one of a handful of telephone conversations, her son had told her he was bone-tired from placing sequins, stones and glitter on metal bangles for 14-15 hours a day. He was yearning to return.
“For weeks, his employer would not let him speak to us on the phone,” Sahuja told Al Jazeera, seated on the mud floor of her house.
She was stirring a large, blackened aluminium pot of rice that would be lunch for five adults and six children, with a tiny cup of watery dal.
Flies hovered over a small bowl of chopped bittergourd beside the wood-fired mud hearth.
Then her eldest son Mithilesh, 30, took ill and the family needed cash. They managed to get Shashikant on the phone.
“Photan said he would convince his employer to send money,” said Subbidevi, Mithilesh’s wife, using the whimsical name given to Shashikant by the employer.
“Photan’s money didn’t come, only the call came announcing his death.”
No cause of death was given. The family had no way of knowing if the body bore injuries, but they suspected that the child may have insisted upon money being wired home and been injured in an ensuing scuffle.
The employer was in a Jaipur jail briefly, they said, and subsequently released.
In Bhimpur Tola where they live, adjoining Sondiha village and 32km (20 miles) from the nearest town of Gaya, even getting more information would have meant an expensive day trip to Konch police station, 13km (8 miles) away.
“There wasn’t a rupee at home. Unless Photan sent us money, we had nothing,” said Subbidevi.
Shashikant was one of tens of thousands of trafficked child labourers who continued to work during the coronavirus lockdown, their traffickers and employers accustomed to ducking the law enforcers.
Across the rural countryside in states such as Bihar that rank low on the Human Development Index, as families strained against widespread loss of livelihoods, India’s already fatigued child-protection mechanisms found more and more children rendered vulnerable to trafficking.
The government of India confirmed that the financial year 2020-21 recorded a small rise over the previous year in the number of children rescued from illegal work.
Children in destitute families are more vulnerable to trafficking than ever.
The Manjhis belong to the Musahar caste, a “Mahadalit” or the most marginalised community among Bihar’s social groups, with very low literacy and asset ownership rates.
Most Musahars own no agricultural land, like Bhimpur Tola’s Manjhis.
’11 children to a room, making 288 bangles daily’
In Gaya’s Atri block, 10-year-old Rajesh Sah of Kharauna village was lured around the time the pandemic began, with 500 rupees ($7) and the promise of 3,000 rupees ($41), a sum he imagined to be considerable.
Four other boys from the village were going with the man, a known trafficker from a neighbouring village.
Three months later, Rajesh’s brother Rakesh, 12, was taken. “He wasn’t paid a penny,” said their mother Chameli Devi Sah. The Sahs’ names have been changed to protect the children.
“We were 11 boys in a room. We ate, slept, worked in the same space,” Rajesh told Al Jazeera.
They were woken at 7am and made to start work after a cup of tea. They worked until 2am on most days, before retiring on a threadbare mattress.
“I bought a blanket with my own money when it got really cold.” There were no pillows.
The other boys included Ranjan and Dilkhush, also from Kharauna. Rajesh had completed Class IV when he was trafficked, much like the others.
A weekly allowance of Rs 50 ($.70), called “hafta”, was paid to the boys, which Rajesh dutifully saved, barring an occasional meal in the bazaar.
Their room had two “windows” like those, he said, pointing to cubbyholes in their unplastered brick home. Meals were rice-dal for lunch, roti-dal for dinner, vegetables being a rare treat.
The work was painstaking and laborious. They placed “chamkeela nag” (glittering stones) on metal bangles, each one making three bags of bangles a day, each bag holding eight dozen bangles – a minimum of 288 bangles every day.
“If I was sick, ‘Maalik’ (the employer) would hit me with a pipe,” Rajesh said.
The studded bangles are washed the following morning to rinse off the excess adhesive. “If the stones fell off, the pipe would be brought out.”
The boys rarely talked during the day, listening to Bhojpuri songs on a mobile phone instead. Bhojpuri is a dialect spoken in parts of Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh states.
Then, on a weekend outing to a Dussehra fair (Hindu festival) nearby, Rajesh spotted a police outpost. More than three months later, one chilly February morning, he spotted his chance and made a run for it.
He was barefoot, his slippers had broken long ago. He did not have any clothes to carry – the employer had burned them in anger when the boy had stepped out to buy medicines without permission.
“I ran and ran, I didn’t look behind,” he said, his escape being a 20-minute run away.
The legal processes and COVID-19 mandatory quarantine took the better part of three months before Rajesh returned in May. That is when the family approached the Atri police to register a complaint. Rakesh was still being held captive.
“Nine different men came to threaten and abuse me over the next three months,” said Chameli Devi.
On the phone and in person, they demanded 200,000 rupees ($2,737) to compensate for business losses on account of Rajesh’s escape.
Eventually, senior policemen got involved and the unnerved trafficker brought Rakesh home, undertaking a two-day bus journey before dropping him off at the Atri police post – without a word.
Pandemic saw rise in child slavery
As the economic crisis compelled impoverished families to resort to desperate measures, evidence slowly emerged of a rise in the incidence of child labour in India.
In 2020-21, the number of children rescued and rehabilitated under the National Child Labour Project rose despite the lockdowns and restrictions on operating industries.
India’s Minister of State for Labour and Employment Rameswar Teli told the parliament that the number of children rescued was 58,289 in 2020-21, an increase from 54,894 in 2019-20, 50,284 in 2018-19 and 47,635 in 2017-2018.
India’s last census, held in 2011, pegged the total number of child labourers in India at 10.1 million.
Asked if the pandemic had caused a spike in child labour, Priyank Kanoongo, chairman of India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told Al Jazeera that children cannot be viewed or protected in a silo.
“The families are primary units, and they must be strengthened,” he said. “Child labour must be ended at the source.”
In July 2020, the union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wrote to state governments about combatting human trafficking “especially during the period of COVID-19 pandemic”.
In May 2021, the MHA reiterated that states’ Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs), set up under the law, would be critical, “especially in the current COVID-19 pandemic”.
Despite this, there is “inadequate support” from state governments for the federal programme against child labour, Kanoongo said. He cited states’ reluctance to pay compensation to rescued children and poor conviction rates, resulting in traffickers not fearing the law.
India’s growing challenge of child labour is set against a global crisis.
A June 2021 report by the International Labour Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said global progress against child labour has “stalled for the first time” in two decades.
“… without urgent mitigation measures, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to push millions more children into child labour,” it said
The latest estimates cast a shadow on international commitments to end child labour by 2025.
Nearly 160 million children were in child labour globally at the beginning of 2020, or almost one in every 10 children worldwide.
Fresh analysis suggests that a further 8.9 million children will be in child labour by the end of 2022, according to the ILO-UNICEF report, a result of the pandemic and deepening poverty.
Torture of trafficked child labourers
When Pikku Prajapati, 13, was rescued in a police raid on a bangle-making factory in Jaipur in June 2021, he was reed-thin.
He had been made to work 16-17 hours a day, with only a small lunch break, he told his parents, Kanti and Pappu Prajapati of Korma village in Buniyadganj, about 10km (6 miles) from Gaya.
The owner would supervise every phone call home. Even a whiff of a complaint to the parents would yield beatings.
Brought to Gaya on July 3, Pikku was hospitalised with a fever, exhaustion and a slow, agonising atrophy of the lower limbs.
“Now he is urinating in bed, vomiting even watery dal. Sometimes he shouts in pain but I cannot understand,” Kantidevi told Al Jazeera in early August.
The Prajapatis said the boy had dropped out of school owing to bad company. Before he left Bihar in the monsoon of 2020, right in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown, the trafficker paid them an advance of 3,000 rupees ($41).
“After that, we didn’t get a single penny,” said Kantidevi.
She remembered calling Pikku past midnight once. “The employer forced him to tell me he had been asleep when the phone rang.”
In fact, he had been working, frequently not allowed to go to bed until 1am. The details of her son’s employment emerged too late, she wailed.
“The beatings and torture of trafficked children are a recurring reality,” said Suresh Kumar, executive director of Bihar-based charity Centre-DIRECT, whose activists work with police teams and Bihar’s AHTUs.
Around the time of Pikku’s rescue, three boys reportedly died of starvation in another factory in Jaipur.
In 2018, Centre-DIRECT helped rescue 211 Bihar children from Jaipur, their numbers rising to 362 in 2020. Between January and July 2021, they were involved in the rescue of 372 children.
Traffickers target children from disadvantaged, desperate backgrounds, Kumar said.
“The back-to-back lockdowns and devastation of rural livelihoods made tens of thousands of children susceptible to trafficking.” Many rescued children are targets for retrafficking too, he said.
Around July-end, activists and police officers helped move Pikku from Gaya to Patna Medical College, but his weary parents took him home a couple of weeks later, unable to live in Patna any longer.
Towards the end of August, news began to come from Korma. Pikku was not recovering, he was delirious often, unconscious sometimes. His legs wasted away further, like twigs.
Pikku died on August 26, two months after he was rescued and rehabilitated under a national project to end child labour.