In Katherine Boo's book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, one of the protagonists, a young resident of Mumbai's Annawadi slum, says that no matter how hard she and her family try, life never seems to get better. The State of the World's Children 2012 report, released by Unicef last week, only underscores what the young girl says in Boo's book. According to the report, thanks to the lack of inclusive policies and opportunities, slum children fail to realise their rights and potential. The report asks governments to have a better understanding of the scale of this challenge and the nature of poverty.
For India, the challenge to create better conditions for children who live in urban slums is real — and immediate. By 2026, 40% of India's population will be living in towns and cities. And at least 4 million children are believed to migrate seasonally, either by themselves or with their families. So calling them 'illegals' and pushing them to the fringes of cities would be of no help. The process of migration is a reality today. Farming is increasingly becoming a loss-making venture and there are very few employment opportunities in the rural areas. The impact of migration hits a child much more than grown-ups because their needs get "diluted by the much rosier picture of urban life and opportunities". Take the impact on health. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in urban slums facilitate the transmission of diseases and lowers the levels of immunisation that, in turn, lead to frequent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. In addition, slums are often demolished, many a times to 'beautify' a city. This lack of a secure tenure can affect a child's growth and security in more ways than one. Moreover, in slums, public education options are limited. In many cases, parents are forced to use private facilities at greater costs. A survey in Delhi found that the primary school attendance rate of slum children in 2004-05 was only 54.5% as compared to 90% for the city as a whole. All this is not to mention other harrowing issues such as child trafficking and drug abuse.
Politicians and bureaucrats always grumble that it is impossible for public facilities to keep up with the pace of migration. While this is true, it cannot be an excuse. One way of tackling it would be to stem migration by improving infrastructure facilities and create opportunities in smaller towns that meet the aspirations of the people. Another option would be to rejig the financial and infrastructural policies quickly and pull all resources to ensure that impoverished children are not denied their basic rights. After all, they are as much citizens of India as, what another protagonist of Boo's book calls, the "first-class people".