Five children, all below ten years were killed and another was critically injured when a wall collapsed on them while they were playing in a vacant lot in East Delhi. Four children were killed and one seriously injured in a fire in Vindhyachal when their bed made of hay caught fire from an earthen lamp. Four children were killed and 19 more were injured when a speeding mini local train rammed into their school bus at an unmanned railway crossing in Amritsar. A bunch of three criminals gang raped and sodomized three children and murdered two of them and dumped their bodies in Delhi. Five children were killed and six others seriously injured in a crude bomb explosion that ripped through a congested slum in Allahabad. Fourteen children were killed as a bus carrying 40 chidren fell into a canal in Andhra Pradesh. Six students were killed and seven injured when roof of a private school collapsed in Uttar Pradesh.
The gruesome list of news of the deaths of children goes on and on.
As the world marked the 23rd anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on the 20th of November 2012, there was a marked lack of an opportunity for celebration, and a need to take stock of the extent to which children’s rights to safety are ignored and violated across India.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, 2012, was passed by the Indian Lok Sabha on the 22nd of May, 2012. Yet, between June and December 2012, the number of sexual offences against children increased 26%. The number of reported sexual offences against children increased by a whopping 98% in December 2012 alone. Most states have been slow to implement and enforce the POSCO Act, and instead, still continue to invoke Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (rape), which is antediluvian, ineffective and violates the rights of the victims.
Every year, hundreds of school-going children are killed, and thousands are injured in school bus related accidents, yet there is no central policy, law or act to protect children while they travel to and from school. Instead, every state implements (or chooses not to implement) its own laws, most of which are unrealistic, impractical, toothless and outdated. Few, if any, of these laws are enforced, and the number of children getting injured or dying of school bus accidents continues to rise, unabated.
Sadly, India is not free from civil unrest. The predicament of children in Naxal-affected parts of Chhattisgarh, in the North Cachar Hills, Chirang and New Bongaigaon districts in Assam, in Ashapara and Naisingpur camps at Kanchanpur in North Tripura District in Tripura, in Kandahmal, Orissa, in the Kashmir Valley and several other parts of India unscores the need to ensure their physical and emotional safety. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (“NCPCR”) has been monitoring the situation of children affected by, and in many instances displaced by, political instability and violence in these areas. During the NCPCR’s visits to these areas, they were struck by the enormous tragedies of children, women and tribal communities. They saw inhuman living conditions in camps in Assam, Tripura and Manipur, and public testimonies revealed an alarming rate of child and maternal morbidity and mortality due to poor healthcare, sanitation and water facilities. Children also lacked secure access to education. These deprivations are layered upon the violence and insecurity that these children and their families live with.
Millions of children across India spend a major portion of their academic lives in unsafe buildings – constructions that are poor, illegal and unsafe, and not fit for clearance and approval by the authorities. Leaky roofs, poor construction materials, weak foundations, narrow staircases, inappropriate locations – all result in risking the lives of the children who study in them. Hundreds of children have been killed and injured by collapsing walls and roofs of schools that had shoddy constructions – approved by corrupt government officials.
And yet, children’s safety issues get peripheral and often superficial political attention in India. On most occasions this attention is triggered by tragedies such as the horrendous rape and murder of Damini in a bus on the roads of Delhi, the knee-jerk reaction to which was the call for GPS in buses and increased police presence. But everyday cases of child exploitation or neglect are rarely recognised as violations or registered as offences. The state infrastructure and services for children in need are poor both in terms of number and quality; the infrastructure is crumbling thanks to skewed budgetary allocations of funds for child rights.
Children suffer inordinately in all phases of disaster and are the most invisible in most disaster recovery and rehabilitation processes except when they are orphaned. A child besides being orphaned, which is the extreme end of the spectrum, also suffers due to varying levels of deprivation and trauma – physical, psychological and social. Children are faced with the serious consequences of living with disability in the event of a physical injury during disasters such as earthquakes. Children also face the prospect of being separated from familiar environments and from families with limited understanding of the event itself due to lack of knowledge, and find it difficult to cope and become withdrawn and non-communicative, necessitating psycho-social support. Natural and man-made hazards and disasters increase vulnerabilities to children leading to exploitation, abuse and neglect, hence needing special care and attention to ensure that their rights are fulfilled by the duty bearers. Conflict, terrorism, multiple natural hazards and disasters continue to torment children. In recent disasters, schools have emerged as one of the most vulnerable in the institutional scenario.
The fallout of the systemic malaise that denies children guarantees to the protection of their rights is that our nation’s most precious resource – its children – are at risk of dying out. The following four-point agenda first proposed by InfoChange might help us formulate policies and legislation on child safety rights issues that ensure maximum positive impact:
- The rights of the child must be articulated as non-negotiable and universal to ensure that the State does not use the rhetoric of “progressive realisation” to de-prioritise child rights on the basis of economic inability.
- The stress must be on enabling rights rather than on policy formulations only, with the State made accountable not only for the recognition of a particular right but also for putting in place a non-discriminatory delivery system.
- The civil and political rights of children, such as the right against abuse and exploitation, must be connected with their economic, social and cultural rights, such as education and work. The disjuncture exists because children are not recognised as full citizens due to their inability to consent, which reduces them to non-citizens.
- Children should have special rights, but at the same time their rights should not be isolated from larger rights issues. This will ensure that they are also considered citizens and guaranteed all existing constitutional rights. Respecting children as citizens is a step towards recognising their voices as stakeholders and as participants, not just mute beneficiaries.