NEW DELHI: Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has appealed to the prime minister of India to prioritise children and ensure they are not trafficked, forced into marriage or put into bonded labour as the country reels from its worstdrought in decades.
In a letter to Narendra Modi, the child rights activist urged him to declare the drought a national emergency, saying that the lives of more than 160 million children were at stake.
"Reports of children being forced into child labour, trafficking, child marriage, and the devadasi (dedicating girls to service in temples) system are coming to light with children increasingly dropping out from school ... and large scale migration due to this crisis," Satyarthi wrote.
The letter was circulated to the media on Tuesday by his office.
"Owing to this drought and the on-going water crisis, children are becoming increasingly vulnerable. In the coming months, there is an increased risk of lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of children becoming victims of these circumstances."
The government estimates more than 330 million people - almost a quarter of India's population - have been hit by the scarcity of water in states such as Maharashtra in the west and Karnataka in the south.
As crops wither and livestock perish, ten of thousands of people are migrating in search of food, water and jobs, leaving behind women, children and older family members who are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.
Figures given by Satyarthi's office showed the number of children dropping out of school in the ten drought-affected states had risen by 22 per cent, while child trafficking cases had increased by 24 per cent.
Satyarthi, who was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, ended his letter calling upon Modi make children "a top priority" in the government's relief and rehabilitation efforts.