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NEW DELHI : The number of child labourers has risen to 160 million worldwide, with millions more at risk because of the impact of covid-19, and children in India bearing the brunt of the “crisis", the UN has warned.

Progress in ending child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing a trend that saw it fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016, a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Unicef said.

Little evidence or data is available as yet for India, Unicef said. However, it expects that covid and the subsequent economic distress to have increased the risk of child labour in the country.

The closure of 1.5 million schools because of the pandemic in India has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, and added to the risk of many of them slipping into child labour and unsafe migration.

The total population in India in the 5-14 age group is 259.6 million, with more than 10 million in work, either as ‘main worker’ or ‘marginal worker’, according to Census 2011. The Census data indicates the decreased incidence of child labour in India by 2.6 million between 2001 and 2011. The data shows a greater decline in rural than urban areas. However, a rise in migration is driving demand for child labour in urban areas.

“The pandemic has clearly emerged as a child rights crisis, aggravating the risk of child labour as many more families are likely to have fallen into extreme poverty. Children in poor and disadvantaged households in India are now at a greater risk of... dropping out of school and being forced into labour, marriage and even falling victim to trafficking," said Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, the Unicef India Representative.

“We are also seeing children lose parents and caregivers to the virus, leaving them destitute, without parental care. These children are extremely vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation," she said.

India has to “act fast to prevent the covid pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children, especially those who are most vulnerable", she added.

The report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labour, with the present number accounting for more than half the global population of children in that age group. The number of children aged 5 to 17 years in hazardous work, which is likely to harm their health, safety or morals, has risen by 6.5 million to 79 million since 2016.

In regions where there has been some headway since 2016, such as Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, covid-19 is endangering that progress, the report said.

The report warns that globally, 9 million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic. A simulation model shows this number could rise to 46 million if the children don’t have access to critical social protection coverage.

Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by covid-19 mean that children already in labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour because of job and income losses among vulnerable families.

The agriculture sector accounts for 70% of child labourers (112 million), followed by 20% in services (31.4 million) and 10% in industry (16.5 million), according to the report. “Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship. Increased investment in rural development and decent work in agriculture is essential," said ILO director-general Guy Ryder.

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