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RIGHTS: State of India’s Children: An Unsettling Reality

NEW DELHI, Nov 13 2009 (IPS) - Here is a sobering thought on the eve of Children’s Day celebrated across India on Nov. 14. Despite the country’s impressive economic growth trajectory and growing geopolitical heft, the benefits of that prosperity are not percolating down to its children who constitute a sizeable 30 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion population.

Hence, 6,000 children die in India every day—a shocking 3,000 due to malnutrition—which Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh recently described as a “national shame”. India also hosts a third of the world’s child brides, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund report, released in October, ‘Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection’.

Worse, India’s infant mortality rate—an abysmal 53 per 1,000 births—trails far behind its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of 30. MDGs are eight international development goals to be achieved by 2015.

In addition, 53 percent of Indian kids face sexual abuse. Of the 13 percent of all children engaged in labor in south Asia, India hosts more than half while 33 percent of Indian children consume alcohol and narcotics each day and half a million get hooked to these potentially dangerous substances every year.

“The pathetic state of children’s health in India is reflective of a total failure of its democracy, public institutions and civil society,” opines Praveen Nair, chairperson of Salaam Balak Trust, a pan-India non-governmental organisation for underprivileged children. Nair tells IPS that enforcing children’s rights is a prerequisite to creating an environment where children can be nurtured to realise their optimal potential.

On the contrary in the world’s largest democracy, there is not enough empathy for children once described by the government as a “supremely important asset”.

The World Bank estimates that India is ranked second, with 47 percent after Bangladesh, among countries with the most malnourished children. In fact, the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa.

These are discomfiting realities for a country that traditionally celebrates Children’s Day on Nov. 14 with a plethora of activities, nay, tokenisms, ranging from politicians lecturing on how children are India’s future, government launching new schemes and puppet shows/child plays in schools for the poor.

The U.N. estimates that 2.1 million Indian children die before reaching the age of five every year—four every minute—mostly from preventable illnesses such as diarrhea, typhoid, malaria, measles and pneumonia.

This is despite the existence of a raft of child-centric schemes that emphasise holistic and inclusive growth. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS)—launched in 1975—for instance, seeks to provide an integrated package of services for the holistic development of children. The ICDS program reaches out to more than 34 million children aged zero to six years, and seven million pregnant and lactating mothers.

The government’s mid-day meal scheme—another government programme which seeks to achieve the twin goals of luring marginalised children to schools while providing nutrition for their growth—has not borne the desired fruit, with both the quantity and quality of food being below par.

According to Umesh Singh, program officer for child Rights at the New Delhi- based Bal Panchayat, a government organisation for child welfare, “a single child is offered 200 to 300 grams of food per meal, which is insufficient. Eggs, which were once a part of the menu, have also been struck off the list. What kind of nutrition can simple ‘khichdi’ (rice gruel) provide for a growing kid?”

Ashok Sharma, project director of the Community Aid and Sponsorship Program (CASP), which undertakes community-based projects, tells IPS that while there is no undermining the fact that the Indian government means well and has launched several schemes to benefit children, an opaque bureaucracy and corruption are gnawing into them.

“We need to become more transparent as a society first for such measures to succeed,” says Singh.

The government’s push to get all children between the ages of six and 14 into school seems to be having mixed results as well. While the overall enrolment rate has ratcheted up, girls and the underprivileged are not getting their fair share of the benefits.

The numbers indicate that the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) program—the government’s flagship universal education scheme launched in 2001-02— may be achieving its mandate, with as many as 96.5 percent of the children in the target group nationwide attending school, according to a survey conducted by the human resource development ministry last year.

Enrolment under SSA increased from 131 million in 2001-02 to 182 million in 2004-05. Out-of-school children plummeted from 32 million in 2001-02 to 7.1 million in 2005-06, a 78 percent downward spiral. But the programme has not had as beneficial an effect among sections of society that need it the most, according to data from 10 states and one union territory.

The selective data showed that the enrolment of girls had risen by just 0.62 percentage point—and was still less than half—from 46.43 percent in 2003 to 47.05 percent in 2007. Among scheduled castes and scheduled tribes— India’s marginalised sectors—enrolment had actually fallen from 32.9 percent to 31.84 percent.

“Motivation is key to pushing poor children to make use of the system,” says Nair. Yet “in many schools, teacher absenteeism is common and they set the bar very low for these children. This kills all incentives to thrive in a competitive peer environment.”

Another widespread malaise in India is that of child labor. Article 24 of the Indian constitution clearly states, “No child below the age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment”.

The Child Labor Act in 1986, too, “prohibits the employment of children who have not completed their 14th year in specified hazardous occupations and processes”. But across large swaths of the country are tiny hands working in fiery factories—fireworks, glass making, carpet making, fashion produce, to name some.

In fact, an alarming upswing in the number of child labourers forced the Indian government to introduce the ‘Bandhua Mazdoor (‘Bonded Labor’) Roko’ Act in 1976. The law contains punitive provisions against parents who send or sell their children to do labour.

But often there is little the government can do about parents clandestinely packing off their children to work to take care of their own financial debts. Faced with the inability of earlier legislation to prevent child labour, the government finally implemented the ‘Bal Mazdoori Roko’ (‘Stop Child labor’) Act to preempt use of child labour in 25 dangerous industries.

However, poor implementation of comprehensive laws neuters their effect. Recounts a glass bangle maker, who declined to be named, in Ferozabad, Uttar Pradesh—famous for bangles and glass works—who employs kids: “The police regularly raid our workshops to pick up child laborers. But no sooner do the cops turn their backs than the parents come begging us to take their children back!”

According to CASP’s Sharma, in India everything boils down to the age-old twin evils of a gargantuan population and illiteracy. “This makes the poor vulnerable to unscrupulous elements,” he says. “They are exploited by corrupt contractors due to lack of awareness and education.”

Singh contends that governmental welfare schemes often encounter limited success as they overlook practical aspects. He says, for instance, that according to government rules, it is mandatory for parents to submit the child’s birth certificate at the time of school admission.

“This creates pressure on the poor parents to buy these certificates from touts who charge a premium. If a daily wager queues up to buy a certificate, he will end up missing a day’s—or several days’—salary. Obviously, it won’t be an attractive proposition for him,” he says.

As it is, Singh stresses, education is simply not a priority for parents struggling to keep the wolf from their door. “Poor parents prefer that the child go out and earn even if they have to beg, so that they can contribute to the family kitty. School isn’t glamorous enough in these circumstances.”

In such a complex scenario, unless the private players and voluntary outfits accelerate their efforts, and all stakeholders are motivated to do their best, it will be no child’s play to put a smile on the faces of all Indian kids.

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