Children of India, brace yourselves today for an outpouring of words. Slogans will pile up on clichés stacked on platitudes. You will hear ad nauseam that you are the nation’s future. And that no investments yield greater returns than those made in your future. It’s somewhat less likely that you will hear yourselves described as citizens whose entitlements and rights are guaranteed by your constitution and by numerous treaties and conventions, most particularly the United Nations Child Rights Convention we signed on your behalf over 20 years ago. Actual commitments to realise those rights, with budgetary allocations to back them, will probably be even less forthcoming.
One commitment to you that we do honour is the one that requires us to report how much we actually spend on your well-being. Last year you accounted for a grand total of 4.09% of your country’s expenditure. The bulk of this (2.49%) was spent on educating you. Despite the staggering increase in violence against so many of you, we chose to spend only 0.04% of our total expenditure on your protection. In fact, despite the 40% increase in child rapes, the 83% increase in procurement of girls and the 56% increase in the sale of girls for prostitution that the National Crime Records Bureau reported between 2005 and 2011, we managed to rationalise a 25% cut in the child protection budget this year. And our media collectively agreed that much more attention was due to those among you that committed violent acts than those who were the victims of violence.
You may have noticed that your country will elect new leaders soon. If you consume any media at all you could not have escaped the incessant exchange of barbs, claims, accusations and insults. By the time we actually vote we will have exhausted our vocabulary of disparaging nicknames and examined in threadbare detail our prospective leaders’ knowledge of history, geography and astronomy. Have you perchance noticed any mention of policies that concern you amidst the verbal barrage? Ah yes, there was some tangential mention when we debated some months ago whether we need to grow the economy before we honour your rights or vice versa.
Not that there’s any dearth of policies we’ve framed for you. Assembling the complex jigsaw of schemes we’ve endowed you with could keep you occupied from conception to adolescence. The most recent, the National Policy for Children, 2013, reaffirmed that “every child is unique and a supremely important national asset.” Odd then that there has been more discussion, in the run up to the elections, of the merits of our space programme and of the costs and benefits of record-breaking statues than of these precious assets. The policy goes on to reiterate that the “safety and security of all children is integral to their well-being and children are to be protected from all forms of harm, abuse, neglect, violence, maltreatment and exploitation in all settings.” You would hope that this would, for example, see us finally put an end to children being put to work across industries and sectors. That we’d see a sharp rise in prosecutions of those who illegally employ or traffic you. Or that we would have found the resources to ensure adequate safety and care for those of you forced to live in shelters, homes and orphanages.
You do, I’m sure, see evidence all around you of our tireless work to “ensure that all out of school children such as child labourers, migrant children, trafficked children, children of migrant labour, street children, child victims of alcohol and substance abuse, children in areas of civil unrest, orphans, children with disability (mental and physical), children with chronic ailments, married children, children of manual scavengers, children of sex workers, children of prisoners, etc. are tracked, rescued, rehabilitated and have access to their right to education.” I’m sure that someday soon we’ll also get around to delivering the “equitable access to comprehensive, and essential, preventive, promotive, curative and rehabilitative health care, of the highest standard, for all children before, during and after birth, and throughout the period of their growth and development” that the policy proclaims.
In a couple of years we will review our collective achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. We will, it appears, achieve the goal to provide almost all of you access to some sort of schooling, no inconsiderable achievement. We will, however, fall far short of our goals to reduce infant and child mortality or hunger. On gender equality outside education we almost appear to be slipping backwards. And there is little evidence we are even beginning to pay serious attention to how climate change will affect your lives and your futures. Many of our neighbours who have not been the beneficiaries of our stellar GDP growth rates, some post-conflict states and nations far poorer than we are will outperform us. Ponder on possible reasons for the mismatch when they liken you to buds or jewels or bulbuls today.
Could it be because you are not an organised vote bank that this situation persists? Maybe those citizens who do have the right to vote can be persuaded to act on your behalf. Perhaps the adults in your family, neighbourhood and school could ask the candidates seeking their votes a few questions on their plans for you. Who knows, a journalist or two might spare some bandwidth to demand answers from the talking heads they meet regarding these unfulfilled pledges. Surely there’s a captain of industry among us who would tack on a side order of child-friendliness to the business-friendliness main coursethat seems to be the sole criterion that determines their choice from the menu of aspiring leaders. Maybe, if you all ask really politely and in chorus, the party manifestos will include hard commitments to which you can hold our next set of elected representatives accountable. Now those might be worthy words.
Happy Children’s Day!
Ingrid Srinath is Executive Director of CHILDLINE India Foundation - the 24/7, free, emergency helpline for children in need of care and protection in India. You can follow CHILDLINE on Twitter @CHILDLINE1098 and Ingrid @ingridsrinath