Recently, I read a story about a 12-year-old Adivasi girl from Chhattisgarh, who had been working in the chilli fields of Telangana. Desperate to return home, she left with other labourers and died after walking for three days.
This is but one of the tragic stories as the COVID-19 pandemic, and resultant lockdown continues across the country.
The lack of voice, the sense of despair, the lack of institutional support, especially when it comes to what is happening to our children—there is no vocabulary for this situation.
Is this a humanitarian crisis, or a moral one?
Regardless, we have failed our children today.
The situation in homes is one of gloom.
The onset of the lockdown coincided with summer vacations for most school children. During this time, they would have been at home for since summers are very hot across the country. They might have gone for a swim or walked around with friends at times.
Many would usually not go hungry, because their parents would have been working, and there would have been an income, and hence, food.
It is different now.
Though children are spending more time at home with their parents, there is a sense of gloom. Being out of school and at home in conditions of insecurity, with no reserves of food, is likely to affect them badly. This is going to worsen the learning crisis in the country.
Getting children back to school is going to be a problem after COVID-19. Children who are hungry, who come from homes that have been denied dignity, won’t be in the mood to go back to school. Currently, the system can’t teach children who are hungry and unwilling to go back.
The Draft National Education Policy talks about a learning crisis in the country. This is going to worsen, and become a crisis of the entire education system, post-COVID-19, if we don’t pay attention. Because the gap is in the system that doesn’t respect the poor, the first-generation learner, the Dalit, the Adivasi, the children who come without proper clothes or a bath. We have to create an atmosphere which will encourage these children to go back to school.
If the system learns to respect these children, they will look forward to going back to schools, and then they will learn.
We need to strengthen our child protection institutions.
There is a large and well-structured edifice comprising systems and institutions that make up the juvenile justice system in our country. We have the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU), the village-level Child Protection Committees, and other entities that are designed to take care of children who need care and protection.
However, they are severely underfunded. The government must trust them, invest in them, and allocate them large sums of money to ensure that abandoned and vulnerable children are reached. There is little point in having a welfare committee or a child helpline when there is no funding or money to operate.
Despite this lack of funds and attention from governments, the entities are working well; however, this is primarily due to the commitment of the people in these institutions, the authority they exercise through the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, and their efforts to reach out to children. The lack of funds shows just how little we put children at the centre. We don’t care enough.
The worst affected are urban poor children.
There is a gap in information around urban street children. While we know what’s happening in the shelter homes run by us, Rainbow Homes, and others, there is no information on what is happening to numerous homeless street children. There are a few in the temporary shelters created by the state, but there isn’t much information.
People tend to glorify the independence self-esteem of street children, and the fact that they don’t seek help. But this attitude harms the children. Every child must be able to realise their full potential. And they can’t do that if they don’t get help—they need support, education, and capacity.
We’ve seen children who enter shelter homes stating that they are fine and can manage. But without help in building their capacities, they grow up vulnerable and become adults who don’t have the skills to deal with society’s complexities and are at the receiving end of police atrocities and other problems. There is limited use of self-esteem when children cannot enjoy equal rights as citizens of this country.
The worst affected, though, are migrant children who work as labour across Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Mumbai in hotels, sweatshops, dhabas, and factories. They have been abandoned; their employers have left them behind and gone off to their homes and villages, with nowhere for them to go.
In some cases, 50-60 children are staying in a dungeon-like place—at their workplace, because they live and work in the same place. They have no food and no way to get back home. They have become invisible to the state and the people at large. They are stuck for no fault of theirs. And there are no reports of rescue or policy decisions regarding them.
And while there has been a fair amount of attention on adult migrant labour, we have seen no resource, policy, government directive, or debate on migrant child labour, many of whom have gone as trafficked child labour.
It is worrisome that we haven’t raised the debate on these children at the national level.
We need to create compassionate systems.
There is a lack of sensitivity and knowledge about the poor. The middle class has an indifferent and condescending attitude and believes that people are poor because they haven’t worked hard enough as we have. These are deeply entrenched attitudes, and we are not as democratic as we think we are.
Democracy is not just about voting every five years; it’s about equality, social justice, and inclusion, and if we don’t understand this, then we are perpetuating an anti-democratic culture in the country. We will only be able to change this through popular movements and uprisings. The middle class is socialised to believe that we are doing people a favour; hence there has to be a democratisation of politics where the poor capture spaces. No one is going to invite the poor to play a role in democracies—they will have to fight.
And in those struggles, we will have to become the support structure, so that they win the battles for health, education, and representation. We shouldn’t play any leadership role—they must have the agency—we must merely support the leadership that emerges in an organic process and see that those battles are successful.
We must put pressure on governments.
The crisis has brought different types of nonprofits to work together. Regardless of their fields—health, education, children—they have all come together to work on hunger and starvation. They are jumping orbits, sharing experiences, discussing, coming together, and joining forces.
While this is a good thing, we must also put pressure on governments to do their part, without getting frustrated. We must learn to say the same things a thousand times over, till they respond to the needs of the marginalised and the vulnerable. They might not listen, but we have to say it again and again, and maybe use different channels of communications, so that they put children at the centre of their work.
It is time to take concrete action to strengthen child rights.
To ensure that the rights of children are protected and enforced, here are five things that we can encourage and support the governments to focus on.
1. Strengthen the institutions that make up the juvenile justice system: Every institution meant for children must be trusted and given the funds required to reach out to the most vulnerable child.
2. Decentralise authority: We must trust our gram panchayats and fund them to take decisions. Gram panchayats can track every child through school attendance registers. Since the government claims that we have 98 per cent enrolment, the names of all the children in the village should be in these registers. The panchayats must go through it, see if any children from the village are missing, and use their resources to get them back.
3. Get migrant children back home: Every attempt should be made to track and get migrant child labourers back. There are established protocols to do this, and we must do this urgently.
4. Strengthen helplines: It is not enough to register the calls that Childline or other helplines receive. We must build their capacity and provide them with funding to respond to more people. We must also publicise these helplines so that more children use them.
5. Build awareness: Children must be made aware of the support structures that exist for them so that they can use them. We must look at different channels in which we can send them messages so that they learn about these structures and avail of them.
Our children are informed by a sense of justice—they want to change reality for themselves and others. They want to make things right. They have not lost their sense of justice, and this is what we must learn from them.
This article was first published on India Development Review. It emerged from a webinar series, On the Front Lines, co-curated by egomonk and Rishabh Lalani. You can watch all recorded sessions from the series here.