By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Dozens of children have been rescued from traffickers over the last week after Indian authorities were tipped off by former child workers patrolling on bicycles under a new scheme spearheaded by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi.
About 50 volunteers are patrolling the eastern state of Bihar, home to some of India’s poorest people and a trafficking hotspot, as part of a project called Bicycle Caravan that aims to cover 1,000 villages in three Indian states.
So far, about 60 children have been rescued and at least nine traffickers arrested in the last week, officials said on Tuesday.
“I got a tip-off from a villager on Sunday afternoon that children were getting ready to leave for Delhi. I passed on the message to my seniors … by midnight the children were rescued,” said Mukesh Mukhiya, 24, a bicycle patrol volunteer.
“It was important to get these children rescued… I was a child labourer myself and worked on farms. They must go to school,” Mukhiya, who was rescued at the age of 11, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Bihar.
Campaigners fear spike in child trafficking from poor states after a coronavirus lockdown that wiped out many people’s jobs and savings.
Bihar has also been hard hit by flooding during the current monsoon season, compounding people’s desperation, according to the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF), which launched the initiative last week.
The volunteers, all child labour survivors, are using bicycles fitted with bright yellow boxes that have helpline numbers painted on them in red and a network of informers.
Police said they rescued 28 children in Bihar last Thursday after being tipped off by KSCF.
Over the weekend, authorities in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh pulled dozens more children from buses headed for Delhi in an overnight rescue operation, according to the state’s child protection panel.
Nine traffickers were arrested and have been charged under India’s anti-human trafficking laws, said Vishesh Gupta, who chairs the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights in Uttar Pradesh.
As businesses reopen, some Indian states have in recent days stepped up vigilance on their borders to check trafficking.
India’s national child protection panel has asked village councils to connect families with welfare schemes for food and funds to check trafficking rooted in financial distress.
About 175,000 children in India have been removed or rescued from work and given support since 2016, government data shows.
Satyarthi, who shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize with Pakistani rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai, has for decades worked with anti-trafficking police units and child protection agencies to save children and bring perpetrators to justice.
It is illegal to employ anyone under 15 in India, but children are permitted to support family businesses outside of school hours, a provision child rights campaigners say is exploited by employers and human traffickers.
Bicycle warrior Mukhiya, who has worked with the KSCF since he was rescued from slavery as a child, is determined to stop other children suffering his fate.
“People have no jobs. They are sitting at home,” he said. “Thousands of children are at risk of being trafficked and we have to stop that.”