Special Report

India’s ballooning child rights crisis

As testified by several national and international reports and surveys of child rights organisations and development agencies, India has arguably the worst child neglect and abuse record worldwide. Rutaksha Rawat investigates

January 18. Two-year-old Falak was admitted into the trauma centre of AIIMS, New Delhi. Abandoned by her sex worker mother, she was battered, beaten and left for dead. Two months later, on March 19 she succumbed to her injuries.

February 21. Six-year-old Pankaj, a kindergartener of Rajkul Senior School in Haryana’s Karnal district, was locked in a bathroom for several hours by his school teacher for not completing his homework. He fell ill and died after 55 days.

March 29. Thirteen-year-old Munni was rescued by an NGO from the home of an affluent doctor couple in Delhi. Munni was beaten, denied food and made to work 18 hours per day.

April 11. Two-month-old Hina’s short life was cruelly snuffed out by her father who beat and burnt her with cigarette butts because of his aversion for girl children.

These shocking cases of child abuse which have attracted 60-point newspaper headlines and prime time television coverage for their unbelievable cruelty and brutality over the past four months, have dramatically highlighted the gross institutional, societal and parental neglect of children in India. But these horror stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Child neglect and abuse is widespread in this nation of 1.2 billion people, of whom 480 million are children below 18 years. As testified by several national and international reports and surveys of child rights organisations and development agencies, India has arguably the worst child neglect and abuse record worldwide.

The World Bank estimates that “about 49 percent of the world’s underweight children, 34 percent of the world’s stunted children and 46 percent of the world’s wasted children live in India”. A United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report titled State of the World’s Children 2012 (SWC 2012), released on February 28, focusing on the well-being of “children in the urban world”, estimates that over 40 percent of all children (including rural children) in India suffer chronic poverty and deprivation. SWC 2012 reveals that the under-five mortality rate is 63 per 1,000 births, 43 percent of children are underweight, and 48 percent are moderately to severely stunted, and only 49 percent of girl children and 59 percent boys complete secondary school (see box, p. 88). A global survey of 200 nations, SWC 2012 identifies lack of access to health; water, sanitation and hygiene; education and protection as prime indicators of child rights deprivation.

Damning as is SWC 2012, data collected from domestic sources reveal that ground realities are worse. According to the 2010-11 report of the Union ministry of women and child development, 170 million of India’s children are in need of care and protection, 1.8 million die before age five, a shocking 79 percent of children are anaemic at birth, 50.76 percent suffer sexual abuse, 68.99 percent physical abuse, 65 percent of school-going children suffer corporal punishment, and 29 percent never attend school. Despite the Union government having signed several international child rights and protection treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the United Nations Millennium Declaration (2000), which set out several millennium development goals including primary education for all by 2015 and reducing under-five mortality by two-thirds, neither the Central nor state governments have made much effort to promote or enforce child rights (see box p.90).

Given this government and societal indifference and apathy, the country’s growing minority of child rights activists are unsurprised by the horror statistics churned out annually by international development agencies and government organisations, with no perceptible impact upon the stony conscience of the establishment or the middle and elite classes.

“Children don’t get sufficient attention in our system. This is evidenced by attitudes, interpret-ations and lack of progress on child-friendly initiatives across the board. Ours is a child-unfriendly society where every day millions of children negotiate starvation, abandonment, exploitation, and injury, and are routinely deprived of shelter, nutrition, health, education and protection. Children have to become the centre of our national development strategy and their rights given top priority. For this to happen, really big systemic changes are required within government and larger society,” says Shantha Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). Promoted in March 2007, NCPCR’s mandate is to “ensure that all laws, policies, progra-mmes, and administrative mechanisms are in consonance with the child rights perspective as enshrined in the Constitution of India and also the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

In India’s obstinately patriarchal society, abuse of children particularly girls, begins in the womb. According to estimates, eight million female foetuses have been aborted between 2001-2011, and the under-five mortality rate is 40 percent higher for girls than boys. The incidence of female foeticide cuts across all religions, castes and classes. “Delhi’s afflu-ent southern colonies apparently report more female foeticide through selective sex testing than rural Bihar,” says a recent editorial in Times of India (April 19). Even as thousands of female foeticide and infanticide cases are being reported each year, a thriving trafficking industry has sprung up to supply brides to men in the states of Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana where the female-male ratio has plummeted to 877:1000 (national average 940:1000).

“Several studies have revealed that the wealthy and educated lead in sex determination tests and subsequent foetal eliminations. Punjab and Gujarat lead the rest of India in their preference for boys, with the rest of India foll-owing closely behind. The preference for male children is pervasive, cutting across castes, cultures, religions and states. In the past decade we have lost eight million girls and it is estimated that three million more will be killed during the next decade. Sex determination tests and foeticide have transformed into a lucrative Rs.1,000 crore industry for avaricious medicos. The first step towards tackling female foeticide is for the state to crack down and severely punish all those who facilitate, aid and abet this heinous crime,” says Dr. Sabu George, a Delhi-based social activist who has been waging a relentless battle against female foeticide for over 25 years.

For an overwhelming number of girl children who survive foeticide, and all other children who live beyond their first birthday, a life of hunger and deprivation marks their early childhood years. According to the Hunger Malnutrition Report released in early January, 42 percent of all children in the country suffer severe malnutrition, prompting prime minister Manmohan Singh to describe the situation as a “national shame” and set up a Prime Minister’s National Council on Nutrition Challenges. On the recommendations of the national council, in Union Budget 2012-13 the allocation for the Central government’s Integrated Child Devel-opment Services (ICDS) — a national programme which provides healthcare to preschool children, and pregnant and nursing women through a package of services including supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check-ups, referral services and health education through a network of 1.2 million anganwadis (crèches) country-wide — was hiked by 58 percent to Rs.15,800 crore.

Yet even the 58 percent higher allocation is woefully inadequate to fulfill the nutritional needs of the 50 million children between ages three-five enroled in 1.2 million anganwadis across the country. For instance, a recent report relating to Karnataka has revealed that under ICDS, a mere Rs.4 per child per day is allocated to fulfill her food and nutrition needs. Moreover 36 years after it was launched, the programme merely covers 50 million of India’s estimated 160 million children between ages 0-6 years, with states with the highest incidence of child malnutrition — Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh — ranked in the bottom ten in terms of ICDS coverage.

“Even the substantially increased ICDS allocation of Rs.15,800 crore is inadequate to provide cooked, healthy and wholesome food and nutrition to the 50 million children accomm-odated in the country’s 1.2 million anganwadis, let alone the millions of children excluded from them. There’s a big danger that underfed infants will grow into stunted children incapable of learning. Moreover, no provision has been made for providing early childhood education in angan-wadis. My submission is that anganwadis must also offer preschool education to children to reap the socio-economic benefits of more mean years of schooling and higher adult literacy. If our children are not fed well and given early childhood education, India is staring at a bleak future in the new millennium,” Reeta Sonawat, author and professor of human resources development at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, told EducationWorld barely a month ago (see ‘Union Budget 2012-13: Middle class India’s public education blindspot’, EW April 2012).

Clinching evidence of Indian society’s neglect of children’s rights is most tellingly indicated by the obstinate persistence of child labour in the country, whose number is variously 14-80 million — it’s difficult to zero in on the right number as thousands of children are “hidden workers” employed in homes or in the underground economy. Although child labour falls within the purview of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regul-ation) Act, 1986 which classifies industry sectors as hazardous, based on varied physical work environments, it regulates rather than prohibits child labour.

“The Child Labour Act, 1986 is flawed legislation. It should be immediately repealed and in its place a new law must be enacted by Parliament prohibiting all forms of child labour, mandating stringent punishment for violators. We also need to implement the Right to Education Act, 2009 in letter and spirit, and simultaneously initiate reforms to drastically improve the quality of public education. Poor parents prefer to send their children to work because little learning happens in government schools characterised by pathetic infra-structure and absentee teachers. A broad social and political consensus is urgently needed to end all forms of child labour,” says S. Thomas Jeyaraj, director, Centre for Child Rights and Development (CCRD), Tamil Nadu.

Denied nutrition, early child-hood education, care and protection, and condemned to low-quality government primary schools, or forced to work in bleak and hostile environments, it’s unsurprising that an increasing number of children are resorting to crime and violence. To children forced into conflict with the law, the broken down juvenile justice system offers little hope of counseling or rehabilitation. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 does not make it mandatory for state governments to establish shelter homes. Both s.34 and s.37 of the Act enjoin that state governments “may” establish children’s homes. This discretion given to state governments to set up “or not build” behaviour correction centres for delinquent or abused children is too wide. Little wonder that the number of such correctional centres or homes in the states is completely inadequate to provide care to children “in conflict with the law” and “in need of care and protection”.

According to the Child Rights Trust, a Bangalore-based NGO, currently 200,000 juveniles (below age 18) are lodged in 5,000 observation homes countrywide. Those convicted are later sent to juvenile justice homes (aka borstals), where they are lodged for reform and rehabilitation. On the statute book, the laws relating to caring for, counseling and rehabilitating young offenders, are unexceptionable. Under s.14 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, cases filed against young offenders “shall be completed within a period of four months from the date of commen-cement”, with exceptions if the “period is extended by the board having regard to the circumstances of the case and in special cases after recording the reasons in writing for such extension”. However, this exception provision has permitted most cases to languish in the system much beyond four months — some-times for years — for petty reasons such as transfer of the principal magistrate, lack of case workers, charge-sheets not being filed on time, procrastination of lawyers, dearth of probation officers, and paucity of juvenile justice board (JJB) members.

“The juvenile justice system in India is in a shambles. State governments have neither the infrastructure nor resources required to implement it. Though the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act are unexceptionable, the institutions required to implement the Act — child welfare committees, juvenile justice boards, inspection committees, advisory boards, child protection units, special juvenile police units — have not been established in a majority of the states. This has resulted in delay in disposal of cases and denial of justice to thousands of children. The entire juvenile justice system needs a massive overhaul and innovative and bold solutions are required. For instance, law graduates could be employed for disposing minor cases such as petty thefts, rash driving, etc, and fast track courts could be set up and Lok Adalats asked to dispose pending cases,” says Asha Bajpai, professor of law and chair, Centre of Socio-Legal Studies and Human Rights, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Adds Vasudeva Sharma, director, Child Rights Trust and member of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights: “Unfort-unately lawyers, the police, politicians, JJBs, child welfare committees and judges themselves are not sufficiently familiar with the Juvenile Justice Act. The police especially are oblivious of its provisions; they do not even know there are homes that provide lodging to destitute, lost and runaway children, often taking them straight to orphanages. Ignorance, indifference and mismanagement have resulted in the complete breakdown of the juvenile justice system in India.”

Against this backdrop of institutional apathy towards juvenile justice, care and protection, it’s unsurprising that the much too few shelters for juveniles are in a state of complete disarray. The country’s 5,000-plus Dickensian government-run shelters are beset with corruption, overcrowding, rotten food and insanitary conditions. Intended to rehabilitate young offenders and equip them for productive and self-sufficient adult lives, on the contrary these institutions drag them down, trapping them in the quagmire of failure, violence, and substance abuse. A majority of the homes don’t offer any formal or non-formal education, vocational training or medical facilities. EducationWorld correspondents plowed through an obstinate bureaucracy to visit state government-run homes in Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai to present eyewitness reports.

In Bangalore, your correspondent posing as a social worker visited the Children’s Home for Boys and Girls on Dr. Marie Gowda Road, which houses 100 children between ages six-18 categorised as orphans, destitutes and runaways. At the time of my visit, in a dimly-lit hall children of all ages had gathered to watch CDs featuring folk tales “with morals”. Probation officer Karakurappa admitted to no formal education being provided in the home although a “full-time teacher” had been appointed to “teach the alphabet and numbers, and conduct storytelling, games and other activities”. An inspection of the premises revealed that the medical clinic was bereft of doctor, nurse, or medicines; dormitories had no beds and the bathrooms were under lock and key “from morning until late night to prevent children from smoking, doing drugs, etc”.

Likewise EW’s Kolkata correspondent Baishali Mukherjee who visited the Government Home for Boys in Ariadaha in the eastern port city, also reported abysmal living conditions, though some effort has been made to provide vocational education and training. Three in-house teachers deliver training in tailoring to 14 inmates aged between 14-18 years. According to the home’s superintendent Atunu Seal, there’s been a rising demand from boys for vocational training in mobile phones and electronic goods repair. “Boys are naturally more interested in learning these skills as opposed to tailoring. But most juvenile homes in the state have been offering tailoring, embroidery and poultry-rearing for decades, and there’s no plan to replace these outdated courses with new, relevant progra-mmes,” he says. West Bengal (pop. 91.2 million) has a mere seven observation homes statewide, and is one of the states yet to establish a State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

In Chennai’s largest observation home, located on the premises of the directorate of social defence on Purasawalkam High Road, which currently houses 37 boys between the ages of six-18, the situation is slightly better. Besides tailoring, VET progr-ammes on offer include videography, computer science, book binding, carpentry and baking. The home has an in-house counselor who visits thrice a week besides guest counselors from NGOs. Meenakshi Rajagopalan, addi-tional secretary, department of social defence, and principal secretary, ICDS, Tamil Nadu, informed EW correspondent Hemalatha Raghupathi that the AIADMK government has drawn up big plans to improve education and training facilities in all juvenile homes statewide: “We plan to improve infrastructure facilities in government observation homes to make them child-friendly, and introduce several new job-oriented vocational training progra-mmes,” she says.

Vidya Shankar, the Chennai-based founder of Relief Foundation and former chairperson of the juvenile justice board, Tamil Nadu, accepts that  government-run juvenile homes in this southern state have better conditions than elsewhere. However, she believes a lot more needs to be done to ensure rehabilitation and protection of children in conflict with the law in the state. “Tamil Nadu does not have a State Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The state government believes this role is already being discharged by child welfare committees in each district. Unfortunately, this is not working and a state commission with powers to prosecute has to be set up immediately,” says Shankar.

In Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country, which hosts an estimated 100,000-250,000 street children, the well-known Umerkhadi Children’s Home in Dongri is overcrowded, insanitary and under-financed. The largest remand home in Asia for runaway children from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, it accommodates a mere 238 boys aged between six-18 years. “The government provides only Rs.635 per child per month — completely inadequate to provide food, clothing, education and medical aid. We need at least Rs.1,500 per child per month. We are afloat only because of the help provided by generous sponsors and donors,” S.A. Jadhav, the superintendent of the home informed EW correspondent Kalpana Rangan.

Undoubtedly the major cause of the nation’s dysfunctional juvenile justice system is inadequacy of funding. In the Union Budget 2012-13, a mere Rs.18,500 crore has been allocated to the ministry of women and child development. Of this, Rs.15,800 crore is for ICDS, Rs.2,250 crore for miscellaneous schemes, leaving a mere Rs.400 crore for integrated child protection services, including maintenance of the juvenile justice system. Given that the country’s child population is 480 million, of whom an estimated 5 percent are juvenile offenders, the outlay is grossly inadequate. Budgetary allocations of the country’s 28 state governments for juvenile justice and child protection are equally miserly. For instance in Karnataka, the state government has allocated a mere Rs.5.2 crore in Budget 2011-12 for juvenile justice.

Given the hand-to-mouth existence of most remand homes across the country, primary education is the biggest casualty. None of the juvenile homes offer formal elementary school education (classes I-VIII) to their child inmates. Arlene Manoharan, head of the juvenile justice programme at the Centre for Child and the Law of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, believes this is a denial of their right to education guaranteed under the Constitution. “The Centre for Child and the Law has made a proposal to the law ministry to amend the Juvenile Justice Act to include the right to education, which is now mandatory for all children in the six-14 age group under the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. Moreover, we are legally obliged to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, with particular reference to Article 2, i.e principle of non- discrimination and Article 40.4 which mandates provision of education for children in conflict with the law,” says Manoharan.

Child rights proponents and activists are unanimous that of the many rights denied to India’s 480 million children, denial of acceptable quality education is the most disabling as it restricts upward mobility. After several years of debating the right to primary education for every child under 14 years, in August 2009 Parliament enacted the Right to Education Act (RTE) which makes it compulsory for the State (Central, state and local governments) to provide free and compulsory education to all children between ages six-14.

However, two years after it became law in April 2010, the RTE Act is a non-starter. A report released on April 3 by the RTE Forum, a coalition of 10,000 NGOs, reveals that 95.2 percent of schools in the country are not compliant with the infrastructure and teacher-pupil norms stipulated by the Act. One in ten schools lacks drinking water facilities, 40 percent schools lack toilets and only one in five schools has a computer. Moreover, 93 percent of teacher candidates failed the National Teacher Eligibility Test conducted by CBSE and 670,000 teachers are professionally unqualified or untrained. Add to this the inadeq-uacy of funds with an estimated Rs.182,000 crore required to implement the RTE Act over five years, and the Centre and state governments fighting over how to raise and share this expenditure.

V.P. Niranjanaradhya, programme head of universalisation of equitable quality education programme, Centre for Child and the Law, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, believes more needs to be done to reform the iniquitous Indian school education system which condemns children from economically weaker sections of society to under-performing government schools. “Segregation within the Indian school system is complex — there are schools affiliated with international boards for children of the elite; schools affiliated with the CISCE for progeny of the upper middle class; schools affiliated with the CBSE for children of bureaucrats and government officials; private English-medium schools recognised by the state boards cater to children of middle and lower middle class households; and finally schools run by state governments and local bodies are for children of the poor, marginalised and subaltern communities. It is shocking to see how children have been divided and fragmented on the basis of their background, class and caste. To enable all children to receive their right to equitable quality education, this segregation must end,” he says.

The obvious solution to ending this divide is for government to raise its public schools to private school standards. But this requires the Central and state governments to sharply increase education outlays and improve efficiency of education expenditure. Way back in 1996, the Kothari Commis-sion had strongly recommended an annual outlay (Centre plus states) equivalent to 6 percent of GDP for education. But for the past 65 years since independence, despite India hosting the world’s largest child population, outlays for education have seldom exceeded 4 percent of GDP. Ditto, government(s) expenditure on health has never exceeded 1.5 percent of GDP.

“We cannot introduce new initiatives or implement existing programmes because we invest only 0.03 percent of our Central budget on child care and protection. There are many wrongs that need to be corrected. First, government must sharply increase its investment in child care and protection, education and health. Second, institutions and people implementing child welfare programmes must be held publicly accountable for outcomes. And at a broader level, Indian society must develop zero tolerance towards all forms of child abuse and exploitation,” says Bharti Ali, co-director, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a Delhi-based NGO.

Arlene Manoharan of the National Law School also advocates a larger role for society and the citizenry to press-urise government and institutions to act swiftly and decisively to protect children’s rights. “There is a lack of ownership of children in our society — a sense of ‘it’s not my child so why must I care’. The ever-growing number of child abuse and neglect cases in India would have sparked revolutions in other nations, but here they just disappear into statistics. There has to be an attitudinal and mindset change within society, especially the middle class which must speak up for the welfare of all children, not just their own. Civil society must pressurise people’s representatives for quick, efficient and transparent action with social audits ensuring outcomes,” says Manoharan.

The dramatic increase in child abuse cases which have been reported over the past four months are storm warning signals that the nation is confronting a crisis of huge proportions. The open and continuous violation of children’s rights requires the Central and state governments and civil society to trans-form into vigilant watchdogs protecting children. Failure of the State and non-State actors to discharge this moral and ethical duty will have consequences too dreadful to contemplate.

With Summiya Yasmeen (Bangalore), Autar Nehru (Delhi), Baishali Mukherjee (Kol-kata), Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) and Kalpana Rangan (Mumbai)