The death of a 12-year-old Indian farm worker during a 100km trek home following the coronavirus lockdown has sparked a probe into child labour in central India, officials said.
India’s 1.3 billion people have been ordered indoors to slow the spread of the virus, which has so far claimed at least 600 lives and infected more than 18,000 people.
Hundreds of thousands of workers across India have embarked on long journeys home by foot since the government last month imposed a lockdown, which has since been extended until May 3.
K.D. Kunjam, the top bureaucrat in the Bijapur district of the girl’s home state of Chhattisgarh, said the child was working as a farmhand in southern Telangana state and was a part of a group of twelve that decided to make the journey home.
“She had walked around 60-70 kilometres (km) and their village was around 20 km from the place where she died,” Kunjam told Reuters.
They trekked through hills and forests in baking heat but she started complaining of stomach pain and breathlessness by the fourth day, he said.
Critics have slammed the state and federal governments’ failure to address the concerns of migrant workers, even as they rushed to ferry Indians stranded abroad and students with mostly middle class backgrounds stuck in western Rajasthan state.
Kunjam said he had been urging workers not to make the long journeys and stay where they were till the lockout ended, despite calls by jobless migrant workers to allow travel to their homes as they have run out of money for food and shelter.
The United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are about 10 million workers aged 5-14 in India.
Indian labour laws ban the employment of anyone aged under 15 but children are permitted to support family businesses outside of school hours. This provision is widely exploited by employers and human traffickers, child rights campaigners say.
“This (Madkam’s death) should have never happened. She was just a child, not a migrant worker,” said independent human rights activist Linga Ram Kodopi, who is based in Chhattisgarh.
“Every year we see children being taken away to work because there are so few opportunities … they bring back a sack of chilli after four months that the family feeds off for a year.”
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