Sixteen-year-old Jomsher Ali comes back to his home in Guwahati's Hafiznagar Bustee tired after a long day not from school but work. With school closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Class 7 student has become a daily wager to earn a living for himself and his ailing mother who used to work as a domestic help but has since lost the job.
"When the lockdown is lifted totally and schools open up, I will try to get back to school. I don't want to leave my studies but I am working as a daily wager now because my mother is unwell and without work. I get 200 to 300 rupees per day and we manage with it. I know studies are important but feeding the family is more important," Jomsher Ali told NDTV.
Online classes are beyond the reach of those like Jomsher and getting two square meals a day is the big challenge for families like his. So children like him are also going to work to earn what they can to add to the family income. Activists fear when schools do re-open, getting them back to class will be difficult as they are getting used to their own new normal - work to earn a living.
"As COVID-19 spiked, the families where I worked as maid dropped me from work. This caused a huge crisis. I could feed him only once a day and I have been very unwell," Jomsher's mother Momina Khatun said.
Jomsher is not alone. Peep into any hut in the Hafizagar slum and you will find similar stories among the 68 families living there. About 120 children live here and locals estimate one-third have to earn to survive.
Jomsher's friends - Saiful and Samad have had a similar ordeal. "Online classes are beyond our reach. We don't have mobiles how can we manage," said Samad. Saiful quipped, "Mother used to earn but now I am earning for her."
Some of these 14 to 17-year-olds are earning about Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 a month in this pandemic "break" as sanitisation workers and vegetable vendors' assistants - good money for those on the margins and hard to give up.
The 2011 census found that five out of every 100 children between ages of 5 to 14 were child labourers in Assam. Many at Hafiznagar are in that count. Years of intervention by child rights activists led them to school but the situation now is alarming.
"It will be a doubly challenging task for us to again engage with the community and get the children going to school after reopening since for months they have got accustomed to this new life of going on the street, working, earning money and also have a bit of freedom," Miguel Das Queah, Child Rights Activist, told NDTV.