If you have been following this newspaper’s latest initiative ‘No Country for Children’, you don’t need me to tell you that the fate of our children is not safe and sound. Many of them are being made to face the sort of torture that is unacceptable in a civilised society. The case studies are self-evident. But what really calls for a debate is what we, as a responsible State and as its concerned adult citizens, are doing about it.
India prides itself on its demographics. A young population is one of the greatest assets that we have. But if these young people do not get the kind of attention that they require, then this will come to nothing. We should feel greatly angered by this. But it would seem that for the most part we simply do not care. I feel so sad that we needed 10-year-old Punita Mistri to make us understand that a tiny bruise which could have been attended to has now turned malignant. Last week, when a Visva-Bharati university warden made Mistri lick her own urine to allegedly cure bed-wetting, people, maybe armchair activists like you and me included, seethed in anger. Is it that as a society, we have somehow overlooked the problems that children face? Is it that they have no voice, or for that matter, a vote, that we care so little?
But hold on, there is a silver lining in the cloud. With much greater media attention, among other things, the situation of children is coming up for more scrutiny than ever before. The problem has not taken centrestage but it is becoming more frequent for us to address the issue of how safe our children are. We have seen, interpreted, understood but brushed aside the statistics that tell us in no uncertain terms that the State is not on top of addressing the needs — and ensuring the rights — of its youngest citizens. Yes, it’s true that one out of every two children below three is malnourished in a country where tonnes of grains rot every year. We know for a fact that this aspiring superpower has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of children who are employed and sexually abused in the world.
But we have heard these figures so often that perhaps they have lost their real impact. Maybe that explains why no one stepped in to stop the employer of nine-year-old Shibu Singh from Berhampore in West Bengal, who starved him and beat him up regularly for over a year. It was only when Shibu Singh was branded with a hot cooking spatula recently that an NGO came to his rescue. But the scar on Singh’s face — and his life — will never be erased. In a most disturbing development, a woman in Amritsar killed her seven-year-old adopted daughter to ‘save’ her from being raped by the father. And to make matters worse, she had approached the police who did not take her seriously.
Now it’s easy for us to point an accusing finger at the authorities and take them to task for not doing enough. But what really lies at the root of the problem? The makers of our Constitution laid down a plethora of laws to not only improve the quality of our children’s lives but also secure them from harm. The trouble lies in the implementation of our laws. And what do you do in cases where officials are the perpetrators? I really question the Delhi Police’s bizarre behaviour in putting up posters of missing girls, with their pictures, outside the city’s brothels, hoping that some man would tell the police that they had seen the girls and therefore, reunite them with their families. If an anganwadi worker beats a four-year-old girl child with a red-hot ladle or a warden behaves like she did in the Visva-Bharati incident, it does show that we really don’t care for children even though we pretend that we are a caring culture. The fact that the warden was booked under bailable charges shows that the absence of an overarching body to ensure legal implementation adds insult to injury for the victims in these cases.
But let us look at ourselves. Every day, we see tiny children begging at the traffic lights. We look the other way when we see children employed as domestic workers in people’s homes.
The case studies highlighted by this newspaper show only the tip of the iceberg. Millions of children are being abused even as you read this and thousands will join them before the sun sets. Tackling the problem of child abuse is, if I may use a cliché, not child’s play. But we need to make a beginning. It really is the question of our future.