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, an official said on Tuesday.
Tens of millions of labourers 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.
Jamlo Madkam died of dehydration and exhaustion on Saturday as she walked from a chilli field towards her village in Chattisgarh state, according to state official Hemendra Bhuarya.
“This is a clear case of child labour and we are looking for the contractor who took the girl to work,” Bhuarya, who is heading the investigation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are also trying to understand if the parents were given any advance by the contractor and the circumstances under which they sent her to work,” said Bhuarya, the sub-divisional magistrate of Bijapur district in Chattisgarh.
The state government had awarded 100,000 rupees ($1,300) compensation to Madkam’s parents and would step up measures to monitor and tackle child labour and trafficking, Bhuarya added.
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 activists say.
“This (Madkam’s death) should have never happened. She was just a child, not a migrant worker,” said independent human rights campaigner Linga Ram Kodopi, who is based in Chattisgarh.
“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.”
India has reported at least 17,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 500 deaths. The lockdown has left tens of millions of informal workers without cash or food, and fearful that bureaucracy will hinder their access to government assistance.
Many families will instead resort to taking out loans at high interest rates in order to survive, while others will fall deeper into debt and end up trapped in bonded labour – India‘s most prevalent form of modern slavery – according to activists.