Childhood is a universal concept. Globally, every human being below 18 is considered a child. However, it is not a well-demarcated concept. A two-year-old child’s mental as well as physical capacities are vastly different from those of say, a 16-year-old. Over nearly two decades, childhood gradually recedes and adulthood seeps in.
However, all children, irrespective of age, remain vulnerable for two reasons when it comes to protecting their rights and well-being.
Judiciary, except in rare suo motu cases taken up without any petition being filed, offers solace only when someone knocks on the courts’ doors seeking justice. Courts don’t go to those who need justice but don’t have the means to approach courts. Children fall in this category.
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Secondly, while adults can be expected to know what their rights are and when they are violated, few children know their rights. Ironically, the responsibility to establish children’s rights and provide means to protect them falls on adults, the potential aggressors of those very rights.
Where are we now, 75 years since Independence, in protecting children’s rights and well-being, allowing them to develop into healthy, educated adults with means to livelihood?
We have travelled a long way. Take the Constitution, which came into force in January 1950. It provided the framework for the survival, development, and protection of children in Part III and Part IV about ‘Fundamental Rights’ and ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’.
Over the next seven decades, India crossed several important milestones in addressing the rights and protection of children. In 1953, the Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) was set up for organising welfare programmes for children and women. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 specified a minimum age and kept children out of work in the industry. In 1974, the National Policy for Children stated that it is the responsibility of the State to nurture children, the nation’s supremely important asset.
Laws such as the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act (2000), the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006), the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012), and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (1986, amended in 2016) sought to both deepen and broaden the protection of children’s rights and well-being.
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That said, structurally, three pain points remain. These need to be addressed immediatley and effectively as the nation heads towards its 100th year of Independcnce.
Pain point 1: Parental poverty
The first distress arises from extremely limited economic sources of parents or caregivers. It is a kind of distress from which the state does not protect the child. For instance, malnutrition is a direct economic consequence of the parents’ poverty. According to the government, there are about 1.8 million severely acutely malnourished children and 1.5 million moderately acute malnourished children in India in October 2021. If not tackled, early childhood malnutrition can cause permanent, irreversible damage to a child’s well-being, affecting his or her entire life.
Dropping out of school is also often due to economic reasons. A UNICEF-sponsored report in 2020-21 puts the annual dropout rate of secondary school students in India at 14.6%.
Pain point 2: Gender bias
There is a cultural factor too at play here and that brings us to the second distress point. If the parent has to choose between educating a boy or a girl because of lack of money, the girl invariably loses out. While the risk of a “lost generation of children” who will never return to school exists for all children, girls face the risk much more severely than boys.
Of course, there are cultural challenges beyond gender. For instance, educating tribal children is a complex challenge involving ethical challenges.
Pain point 3: Migration
The third source of distress could be ‘development’, which forces many parents to migrate. This displacement causes more distress to the children than to their parents.
Children moving to a region with a different language often get hit hard in academics, if schooling is continued at all. For instance, a child of migrant labourers moving to Tamil Nadu from Bihar, if enrolled in a government-run school since the parents cannot afford private school fees, has to learn Tamil to clear the Class 10 board exam, an impossible task in middle or senior school. Consequently, child labour is common among migrant parents since schooling cannot happen.
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How can we as a society interested in the well-being of our children, address these issues to make sure that all children have equitable opportunities?
Responsibility of the state
Perhaps the first step would be to create a deeper and wider awareness of children’s rights among all stakeholders, to reiterate the idea that a child is ultimately the responsibility of the state, which represents society.
This means the state should become proactive in making parents and teachers aware of their obligations to children, and children’s rights. It is not easy. Getting economically challenged households to adhere to children’s rights, for instance, could be very difficult given that many view children alternatively as a revenue source or an economic burden.
The second challenge would be to help in the evolution of laws protecting children’s rights. Consider the Right to Education Act (2009) – which was in the making as an idea for nearly a century. The 86th amendment to the Constitution in 2002 made the Right to Education (RTE) a fundamental right. However, it took a good 52 years to do so. And it took seven more years to pass the RTE Act, indicating the massive depth of reluctance to progress on this front.
Quality of learning
Experts continually identify gaps in the implementation of the laws about children and suggest ways forward. For instance, experts suggest that the RTE Act should now go beyond “easy to measure” metrics and shift attention to the quality of learning. How quickly such suggestions are debated and accepted, making the laws more relevant is critical.
The third challenge is to create a solid institutional structure to tackle children’s issues. Currently, it exists only on paper. For instance, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the apex statutory body, functions with a less-than-skeletal structure with most posts remaining vacant.
The minutes of the last meeting of the commission held on April 21, 2022, available on NCPCR’s website, reveal that only two members attended the meeting – one of them being the chairperson. No discussion happened.
The commission has a sanctioned strength of seven members but only two posts – including that of the chairperson – are filled. Given that NCPCR is expected to oversee the well-being of 472 million children in India under 18, the near non-existent status of this apex body indicates nothing short of gross, wilful neglect.
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The fourth and final challenge is the speed of delivery of justice. Endurance is the hallmark of the Indian judicial system. It may take years or decades to get justice. However, unlike adults, children cannot wait eternally for remedy since childhood is time-bound.
Responsibility of adults
We seem to be keener to punish children for wrong-doings than protecting their rights. While juvenile courts, with the authority to pass judgments for crimes committed by children, are spread across the country, special courts to fast-track the cases where a child has suffered don’t exist beyond three states – Delhi, Goa, and Telangana. Such courts should be in every state and should also be adequately staffed. More importantly, they should deliver justice speedily.
A long road lies ahead of us in protecting the rights of our children. If India is to become a genuine welfare state, we adults need to be alert to the considerable gaps between the laws about children and the reality on the ground and work towards closing them.
(The author consults in the education domain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)