RIGHTS OF MIGRANT CHILDREN DURING COVID-19:A MINACIOUS REALITY

Introduction

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted daily life for humankind equally, its impact on migrants has been particularly devastating. They, like many of us, have experienced increasing degrees of despair and loneliness. They face additional problems due to lack of treatment for COVID-19 infection, their livelihood, which has been disrupted owing to the pandemic, and uncertainty about their right to such health- care. It is often said that the three basic necessities for human survival are ’roti, kapra, makaan’ (in Hindi, meaning food, clothes, shelter), but ever since the pandemic has struck the world inits clutches, migrants have had their hands off such necessities. The most abruptly hit by the pandemic are the children of migrant workers, whose lives have been completely jeopardized owing to the pandemic and subsequent failures of central and state governments to protect their rights. This was taken up by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in Child Rights Trust v. Union of India, in which the actions taken by the federal and state governments to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on migrant children and children of migrant workers’ fundamental rights were surveyed. The write-up forthwith discusses the facets of the case and the government’s responsibility to safeguard the rights of migrant children.

Background | Child Rights Trust Case

The petition was brought by the Child Rights Trust, a non-profit organization, and Nina Nayak, a children's rights advocate and campaigner. They suggest that the lives of migrant workers’ children, as well as migrant children, were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic and their vulnerabilities have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Migrant children have been forced to reside in unsafe, informal locations like railway stations and pavements due to a shortage of transit camps, labor colonies, and quarantine facilities at state borders. Despite the Central Government’s increased financing for the mid-day meal program, migrant children have faced food insecurity since anganwadis and government schools were closed at the start of the pandemic due to poor execution of initiatives. The number of infants and children dying from starvation, malnutrition, and exhaustion has increased, showing a worrying worsening in the treatment offered to migrant children during the pandemic. Ever since the online learning mode started in government schools, without proper planning to provide migrant children with access to technology, the right to free education of such children is in peril. The petition is concerned with three groups of children: first, children who are left in villages because their parents have migrated for work; second, children who have accompanied their parents on seasonal labor migration; and third, children who have moved out on their own to find work. In all reports and data acquired by the government, the third category is almost unnoticed. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, children in India, particularly those from marginalized groups, had it tough to find work and serve as laborers, and during the pandemic, the situation has worsened so much that it is either work or die of starvation. According to data from the 2011 census, India has 10.1 million child laborers which may be safely assumed to have risen by 2021

Violation Of Rights - The Wrongs Of Pandemic

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is a subject of wide connotation, not limiting itself just to the mere definition of life and personal liberty, but it expands its claws to “Right to livelihood”, “ Right to shelter”, “ Right to education”, “ Right to health”, and “ Right to self-preservation” all of which are jeopardized in the cases of migrant children due to the pandemic. Starting with the “Right to education”, which is an integral part of Article 21, it has been unambiguously stated out loud and clear by the courts. Every child has the right to free and compulsory education from six to fourteen years of age, and early childhood care and education below six years of age, as enshrined in Article 21-A and Article 45 respectively of the Indian Constitution. Article 21-A necessitates the provision of high-quality education to all children aged six to fourteen who attend school on a regular basis, which is getting looked over due to the ongoing circumstances because, let alone high-quality education, children are not able to even get a basic education. . Section 8 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 states that a child's right to education should not be limited to free and compulsory education, but should also include quality education devoid of discrimination based on a child’s economic, social, or cultural background. Article 15(5) of the Indian Constitution also envisages that the governments can make special provisions to ensure that the children belonging to disadvantaged sections also get admission to educational institutions. However , the right to education of migrant children has been compromised here , compelling them to either drop out of their school or not take the admission entirely. Right to Shelter under Article 21 refers to all infrastructure necessary to live and develop as human beings , but ‘roof over head’ a basic necessity of life, has also become a far-fetched dream for such children because of the loss of work their families have suffered. Self-preservation of one’s life is an essential corollary of the fundamental, valuable, and sacrosanct right to life established in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, as per Surjit Singh v. State of Punjab. Moreover, the “right to health” of such children during the pandemic has been heavily clamped upon them and insufficient policies leading to shortage of oxygen cylinders, overpriced COVID tests and hoarding and blackmarketing of requisite medicines have proved to be deleterious and prejudicial to the children and alike, even after around a year and a half since the pandemic struck. The state is required by the National Food Security Act, 2013 to provide nutritious food to lactating women and children under the age of 14, and the act marked a transition from a welfarebased approach to a rights- based approach to food security. However, the closure of government schools and anganwadis has forced the children to stay aloof from such basic rights necessary for healthy survival, which breaches the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. Moreover, Article 24 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits employment of children under 14 years of age in hazardous activities, has also been compromised because, to meet the daily needs of themselves and their families, such migrant children are employed in working areas which can hamper their health and, consequently their lives. The state must take action to fulfill its responsibilities under the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 and Article 7 of the International Labour Organization's Convention No. 59, which provides certain conditions with regard to the employment of children in hazardous environments, working hours, holidays, etc., to be followed by the central and state governments, but sadly, no proper measures havebeen taken by the officials for the same. Article 39(e) of the Indian Constitution intends to protect children from abuse and Article 39(f) provides that the State shall roll out policies that ensure ample opportunities and facilities for children to grow up in a healthy, free, and dignified environment, and be safeguarded against exploitation and moral and material abandonment.

International Obligations For Protection Of Rights Of Migrant Children

India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948[UDHR]. Article 3 of the UDHR provides for the right to life, liberty, and security of a person. Article 25 provides for special care of children and adequate facilities to ensure standard living with regard to health, housing, medical facilities, employment, and sickness for every person. Moreover, Article 26 provides for the right to education ought to be free in elementary stages and aims at the development of human personality through education. Article 8 protects the rights enshrined in the declaration by giving the right to the people to be remedied against acts which violate their fundamental rights conferred upon them by constitution or law. Therefore, as a signatory, it is the duty of the government of India to abide by such requirements and fulfill its responsibilities as a government. Furthermore, the Convention on the Rights of Children, 1989 also puts forth provisions to protect the interests of children and enhance their standard of living, irrespective of their race, colour, sex, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. The convention also requires the state parties to recognize the right to life inherent in every child, and do their maximum to provide a healthy and safe life to the children. Article 24 of the convention implies that state parties shall also acknowledge that children have the right to the best possible health and facilities for disease treatment and rehabilitation. It requires states to ensure that no child is denied access to such health-care services. Therefore, it is to be noted that India is bound to protect the rights of the country’s children owing to its national and international obligations and the central and state governments must ensure that they abide by their duties so as to create an equal environment for the migrant children. A thorough analysis of the ongoing situation suggests that not enough has been done yet, to protect the rights of the children. The struggle they were already going through to stand a fairground and a chance to enhance their lives like the rich sections, has been worsened because all of the little things they possessed have been taken away from them to continue their lives in any little way possible.

Strategies For The Government Of India

The case discussed above has not been decided by the Supreme Court, but it’s affirmative that the court will pass the most capable verdict which could protect the rights of the affected children. Every person is entitled to enjoy the rights conferred upon them nationally or internationally, and to see certain sections of the human race fighting hard to survive is not something any government would want. The central and state governments must churn out some rock-solid policies to maintain the dignity of the migrant families and their children. The pandemic has been tough for everyone, either haves or have-nots, but the latter section has been strenuously affected by it, making it difficult to even eat, drink, and hence, survive. The state governments should appoint a team who can collect data from around the state, surveying the conditions of such children and families and on the basis of that, roll out certain schemes and policies which can save them from the atrocities of the pandemic. Several governmental organizations such as, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the 24-hour child emergency helpline (Childline 1098), district-level child welfare committees (CWCs), and a vast network of collaborative public and private sector organizations must come forward to work to improve the standard of living of children in India, for which they have been constituted.

Conclusion

One step taken towards improving education, health, nutrition, and prevention of child labor and violence towards children has been undone. The country has come ten steps back owing to the pandemic and its adverse effects, but all that is undone can always be re-done, if planning, direction, and execution are done with utmost clarity and agenda, and this exactly is the need of the hour. One question needs to be asked here : Is this all we can offer the children of our country ? Is this what they deserve just for the fact that they belong to the poorer section of the people ? No, definitely not. An appropriate analysis of the situation would lead us to the conclusion that poorer children are the biggest sufferers here because their families have almost little to no savings to support their livelihood or education. Our country has a great section of children below the poverty line, amongst which only a small section are part of secondary and higher-level education. Others are involved as rag-pickers, beggars, and workers in many factories as well as domestic set-ups.

Children are the future of our country and we have to protect their present to protect the country’s future.


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This article has been written by Ekta Agarwal. Ekta is a second year law student at National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam.