On our 73rd Independence Day, last Thursday, one attended the flag hoisting ceremony of a small junior school on the foothills of the Himalayan ranges in a place called Kuthal Gate not very far from Dehradoon in Uttarakhand. Over a hundred smartly dressed kids stood in attention for the flag hoisting and twenty or more children in our traditional clothes, some of them holding the national tricolor, waiting for their turn for a cultural programme despite some rain. One wondered how excited the children and the audience were experiencing an air of expectation for the flag hoisting, characteristic of our Independence Day in any part of the country. After the flag hoisting there were a few patriotic dances and songs by children which concluded with a medley of few evergreen Hindi patriotic songs and dances, the flavor of Independence Day anywhere. Looking at the happy and excited children was a great feeling.
A couple of days prior to this one was going towards East Delhi. At almost every traffic junction a new merchandize was being sold by small children- our National flags of all sizes. Wearing tattered and torn, often oversized shirts and frocks these unkempt children, boys and girls would scurry to cars and with rare uncanny sense of salesmanship would tap on the car windows and appeal to your patriotism to buy one of their precious wares, our tricolor. Soon there was first a drizzle and then a rare heavy downpour and as we halted at the next red light, more children came knocking at the car windows and appealed to buy at least a small flag. The light turned green and we moved on to see more children precariously running to the cars at every traffic signal. Not a pretty sight compared to the happy school children celebrating in Kuthal Gate.
These miserable little urchins should have been in schools, this insensitive person thought. Was it an empathetic thought, one questioned, realizing that most of ‘us’ consider ‘them’ as a nuisance and blame everyone from their parents to the government, poverty to lack of social welfare guarantees a welfare state ought to provide and so on. The question is, how many of us really care for these street or working children or whatever sociological term we would use to classify them and continue to blame everyone else as we celebrate our 73rd Independence Day. These children, who are called the most vulnerable groups of the society by the UNICEF come in four categories according to researcher Mark W. Lusk- children who return to their families at night after working on the streets; children working on street but with dwindling family ties; children work and live with their families on the street; children who work on the street, but have no connection with their families. Many of the children found selling the national flags on the eve of the Independence day belong to one of these categories and the number of street children is estimated to be 400,000 with 18 million children working on streets. . Almost all of them can easily be classified as ‘stunting’ or ‘wasting’. Incidentally, ‘Stunting’ is low height for age caused by long term insufficient nutrient intake and frequent infections. Wasting or low weight for height, is a strong predictor of mortality among children under five. It is usually the result of acute inadequate food intake and diseases. According to UNICEF, “In India 38% of the children younger than five years of age are stunted, a manifestation of chronic under-nutrition. Stunting and other forms of under-nutrition are thought to be responsible for nearly half of all child deaths globally.”
Are these hapless children just numbers and don’t they deserve the child rights our constitution and legislations provide? The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC] defines a child as “any human being below the age of eighteen years of age, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” Our country ratified the CRC in 1992 and we have resolved that all children are born with fundamental rights like any other citizen of the country. As these rights are too exhaustive, only few of them are enumerated here. They include , “Right to Survival- to life, health, nutrition etc; Right to Protection- from all sorts of violence, physical and sexual abuse, dangerous drugs etc; Right to Participation- freedom of opinion, expression etc; Right to Development- right to education, to learn, to play etc.
Unfortunately children like those found selling our National Fag on the eve of the Independence Day are deprived of all the rights of the children. They do not go to school; they do not get healthy nutritious food for their growth; no place or toys to play or proper beds to sleep in the night. They are exposed to violence, physical danger, drugs and sexual abuse. It is pathetic that these marginalized children do not enjoy the fruits of freedom and the giant strides of overall development the country has made even as we celebrate our Independence Day.
The government at the center and states are conscious of the terrible plight of millions of our marginalized and vulnerable children and have special programmes for them; but we have a long way to go to what may be utopian, of every child growing up healthily, enjoying all the rights our Constitution guarantees. The schemes for fulfilling such a Utopian dream touch upon every aspect of the healthy growth of our children with all their rights ensured. One of the earliest such programmes was the Reproductive and Child Health Programme introduced in 1951.The Integrated Child Development Services [ICDS] of 1975 aimed at enhancing the health, nutrition and learning opportunities of infants and children below five years and their mothers. In 2006 a Creche Scheme for the children of working mothers envisaged for overall development of children, childhood protection, complete immunization, awareness generation among parents on malnutrition, health and education. The Pulse Polio Immunization of 1995 succeeded in eradicating the dreaded polio. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan initiated in 2001 did succeed to some extent in improving school enrolment and arresting drop out rates. Some of the states had introduced mid day meal schemes but in 1995 a full- fledged Mid day Meal Scheme for children from class I to VIII was introduced to improve enrollment and regularity of attendance of disadvantaged children by providing nutritional mid day meals. For the ever increasing number of street children an Integrated programme was introduced in 1991 by provision of shelter, nutrition, health care, sanitation, hygiene, protection against abuse and exploitation.
The unfortunate reality is that despite all the welfare measures by the government and the civil society, there are still large sections of vulnerable, deprived children. The reasons are too exhaustive to list here. Take the example of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” scheme introduced by the NDA government on the eve of the Republic Day in 2015. It has been an attempt to improve the declining child sex ratio and educational opportunities of the girl child. Media reports point at the problem of gender insensitive attitudes and resistance to change in the complete success of this programme. For example in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand according to a July 22 NDTV story, “216 children were born in 132 villages of the district in the last three months, but not a single girl was among the newborns, which left the district administration baffled.”
Despite sincere efforts by the government to improve the condition of our children and their holistic development, there seems to be a gaping gap between ambitious government programmes and the ground realities. The Uttarkashi story is just one of the examples. Some of the data published by the government, UN and international agencies are indeed disturbing. According to the Global Hunger Index, “India ranks 103rd out of 119 qualifying countries. With a score of 31.1 India suffers from a level of hunger that is serious.”
Malnutrition is another serious problem. UNICEF says that ”under nutrition jeopardizes children’s survival, health, growth and development, and it slows national progress towards development goals. Under nutrition is often an invisible problem.” The magnitude of this ‘silent problem’ can be gauged from the UN body’s estimation of 61 million children suffering from chronic malnutrition!
Growing violence against children including sexual crimes is a national concern. The Supreme Court had pointed out in July that from January I to June 30 this year 24,212 FIRs on sexual crimes against children have been filed across India. Aren’t we living in a country extremely dangerous for our children? Similarly addiction to drugs by children is yet another major problem facing the country. On the last day of last month a Rajya Sabha member claimed that 25,000 school children in Delhi are addicted to drugs.
Have we as a welfare state failed our children? Are they really safe and free? When will we ensure that billions of rupees spent on welfare and development schemes for children actually reach the really poor and the marginalized among them? Of course, we shall overcome one day!