What Is Next For Our Children?
Written by Poorvi Chaudhary
Ever since India has been under lockdown, we have seen the single largest exodus of people in modern India since the partition. Images of tired, and weary migrants making their journeys back home by traversing hundreds and thousands of kilometers should haunt the public for years to come. We request you to revisit those visuals closely, and this time lay your eyes on the children in those images. It is a well-known fact that in times of disaster, women and children bear the brunt of the situation. In the case of vulnerable children who were already in danger and facing exploitation, matters have exacerbated exponentially as in the case of a 12-year-old girl, who walked for over three days, covering nearly 100 kilometers and died barely 11 km short of her home in Bijapur district’s Added (Gargi Verma, 2020). The child’s name was Jamalo Madkam. Similarly, there are millions of children who are not even on the radar of the state, children living in perilous conditions, or have undertaken journeys towards home on foot.
India is a signatory to the United Nations convention on the Rights of Child. As a ratified member, it has a Juvenile Justice Act, and is required to undertake apropos measures to ensure rights of children with regards to juvenile justice, care, protection, adoption, etc. The Juvenile Justice Act addresses issues pertaining to children in conflict with the law i.e. children under 18 having committed an offence, and children in need of care and protection i.e. homeless, without a guardian, begging, trafficked etc. The Act mandates the set-up of Juvenile Justice Boards (JJB) and Child Welfare Committees (CWC) in every district.
During the pandemic, the state machinery has been issuing advisories to address the needs of children, and it has also been catalyzed by the judiciary. In line with a Supreme Court order [Writ Petition (c) No 1/2020] asking all states to release prisoners on parole or interim bail to reduce overcrowding in jails, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights issued an advisory on March 28, saying that a high-powered committee will be formed to implement this. In addition, directives have been issued to address the needs of children out of care during this period. (NCPCR, 2020). There could be concerns regarding the safety of families–which could be a small fraction– on the return of juveniles who have gone rogue, and what steps will be taken to bring them back to the fold as and when the lockdown is relaxed. On the 22nd of April, eleven juveniles escaped from a correctional home in Central Delhi after allegedly injuring its security in-charge and three police personnel(PTI, 2020). The system needs to factor in and prioritize the rehabilitation and long-term well-being of the children while announcing short term measures.
With respect to children in Child Care Institutions, the Delhi Women and Child Development minister, Rajendra Pal Gautam, who also looks after the Social Welfare department told India Today that 159 minors residing in four child observation homes in Delhi were released on bail (Jain, 2020). In states like West Bengal, the High Court directed the Principal Secretary of the Child Welfare Department to ensure that the superintendents of the homes do not leave their workplace until the lockdown is lifted. The superintendents have been asked to look after the health, hygiene, and mental well-being of the children (Express News Service, 2020). The matter is far from simple as a lot of institutions face financial constraints. Sending children back to their homes is also not a prudent solution, as many belong to families that live a hand-to-mouth existence with a large number of people facing lay-offs, and staring at unemployment. It is compounded by the fact that a lot of informal workers haven’t received their salaries for the last two to three months, or in some cases even more. Interviews of daily wage labourers over news channels and podcasts throw light on this inhumane predicament faced by millions. The uncertainty that looms over the lives of children has not been addressed adequately by any institution.
With children that are out of care, like street children, slum dwellers, beggars the matter seems as complex as ever. A survey by ‘Save The Children’ pegs the number at 2 million, however, the real number could be much higher, with around 80% of children who don’t even possess any government identification cards. NCPCR said the lockdown period could be used to create a database of the children so that they could be linked to various government social schemes. The NCPCR chairman Priyank Kanungo told Bhasha that since the majority of such children run away from homes on the train, the present times are unprecedented as the trains aren’t running. It is an ideal situation to prevent them from coming down on the street again, and they should be helped to settle down wherever they are. However, steps regarding this need to be taken as soon as possible before the matter goes out of hands. An increase in crimes by children in need of care and protection can be anticipated due to lack of resources and activities which used to keep them out of it. The Delhi High Court [W.P.(C) 2973/2020] had recently asked the government to see whether temporary Protection Officers can be appointed, till the regular appointments are made, for protecting women from domestic violence. Similar steps may be taken by the state governments for the protection of children in need of care and protection. Apart from this, NGOs and any other services, resources, and responders on-ground that aim to work towards the welfare of children in need of care and protection should also be included in the list of essential services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only blown the cover on deep issues that have been existing for a long time. The situation for a large number of children is in peril due to the lack of adequate social security and safety nets. Our children deserve our attention, compassion, and care right now, more than ever and the state needs to act. If not acted upon now, our country will be gaping at a future where the lockdown and half-baked policies did more harm to its human resources than the COVID-19 virus itself, instead of a 5 trillion-dollar economy.