According to some estimates nearly 40 percent of the country comprises of children- below 18 years- this is a substantial demographic. This week marks two significant days for children. November 14th is marked as Children’s Day across India to celebrate Nehru’s birthday. November 20th is marked as World Children’s Day internationally to commemorate the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It is important to look at issues around child welfare that we as a country and a society must address collectively.
First and foremost perhaps, is the need for poverty alleviation. In some good news, between 2005 and 2016, India lifted 270 million people out of poverty according to a report by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme. This is an impressive feat- to put things in perspective, the entire population of the UK is around 67 million.
Having said that, it is no secret that poverty is a huge concern for the country. The covid situation may possibly make it worse. This means that sadly, a huge part of the population is still malnourished- according to some estimates about 40 million children. The state has taken some incredible steps- the mid-day meal scheme for instance is a step in the right direction. Not only does it ensure education for all, it does so whilst also ensuring at least one nutritional meal is afforded each day. Perhaps one of the largest such schemes in the world- more than 12 crore meals are served in our schools daily. This is an excellent initiative- yet a huge number of children are unable to avail this- on account of not being able to go to school.
Second, education is a crucial need for all children. Article 21 A makes education for children between 6 and 14 as compulsory. The Right to Education Act of 2009 furthers this objective by providing free and compulsory education for all. The 83rd Amendment to the Constitution made it a fundamental duty on every parent or guardian to ensure that their child or ward is provided education between the age of 6 and 14. These are all steps in the right direction. However, going forward, the applicability of these provisions must be strictly monitored. The quality of education should similarly be monitored to ensure parity across all schools and quality education that is world class and in line with the world standards. Private schools must accommodate students from all financial backgrounds.
Third, the protection and safety of the children is absolutely non negotiable. It is essential that the health- mental as well as physical health of each child is taken care of. This also includes protection from any harm. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 is one such legal instrument. It makes it mandatory to report sexual assaults on children. It also balances out the form of trial and courts have been sensitive to witness protection of children. Similarly family courts continue to adopt practices to limit damage to children. Those who come into conflict with laws are to be dealt with under Juvenile laws. We need a comprehensive study of these laws- to ensure complete protection of our children and ensure that each child is given the best possible opportunity to grow and if appropriate, reform.
Human trafficking continues to be a dreadful threat- leading to abduction and kidnapping of children that further leads to exploitation, including child labour. To truly stop this- not only do enforcement agencies need to be on top of it all- the role of the civil society to report such crimes and the role of the international community to help detect these is also crucial. A concentrated effort of all sections needs to be made to stop this immediately.
Last, it is important that any action we take as a nation- ranging from our education policy to environmental decisions should all be taken keeping the interests of our children and the future generations in mind. Education should be wholesome and practical. Environment degradation needs to be reversed with particular zeal. The pollution, for instance, effects children disproportionately. This needs to become a top priority to ensure healthy children who are able to have a happy childhood.
The great Rabindranath Tagore once remarked ‘Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.’ This children’s day, we must reflect on ensuring that each child has the happiest and safest childhood possible. They should not be bridled, cabined and cribbed by the social evils of child labour, poverty or lack of opportunity. It is them, after all, in whom we invest our futures.