Sixty-five years after Independence, millions of Indian children are yet to be freed from the bondage of malnutrition, child labour, lack of education and child abuse. Their wait to enjoy their childhood and realize their full potential seems to be getting longer with every passing anniversary of our Independence.
A look at where our children stand today leaves much to be desired. We cannot even claim to have provided bare minimum food, education and protection for millions of children during all these years of freedom. Unfortunately, the issues do not seem to figure as high on the national agenda as they should.
After 65 years of freedom, child malnutrition has assumed epidemic proportions. Almost every second child in India faces some level of malnourishment. Almost 40 per cent of Indian children are underweight, and 45 per cent are stunted due to malnourishment, according to the National Family Health Survey-3. The survey also reported that six out of every 10 children from the poorest households are stunted, and almost as many are underweight. Children from the SC and ST communities are also more likely to be malnourished, according to this report. The ministry of health and family welfare states that more than 55 per cent of the under-5 mortality occurs from complications resulting from malnutrition.
Neither has enough been done to make life easier for children who somehow survive malnutrition. They work in factories, handling hazardous chemicals, losing their childhood even before having a glimpse of it. Many are employed for household work in our cities and towns.According to the NSSO’s 66th round survey (2009-10), there are 49.84 lakh child labourers across the country. About 13.3 per cent of children in the 10-18 age group are employed or engaged in some income earning activity. Of these, 42 per cent comprised casual wage workers and another 42 per cent were unpaid helpers in household enterprises.
Fortunately, millions of children now manage to go to school, thanks to the implementation of the Right to Education Act and several other schemes by government agencies and civil society. But ironically, this has led to more challenges.
Going to school may not be the most pleasant experience for a child in India. In fact, it is a nightmare especially if a child belongs to a marginalised section of the society.
Imagine children staying in school for eight hours without even a drop of drinking water, no toilets and in crowded classrooms where teachers teach two different classes of 80 to 100 students each. The growing number of enrolments which brings a smile to our faces doesn’t reveal these aspects.
The annual economic survey released this year informs us that 16.6 per cent of schools have no provision for drinking water, 45 per cent do not have even their own boundary wall and more than half of Class 2 and Class 4 classes sit together with another class.
In addition, 56 per cent of schools still have no separate toilets for girls, 28.6 per cent do not have libraries, 60 per cent do not comply with the teacher-pupil ratio of 1:30 as stipulated in the RTE Act and 28 per cent have no playground.
India is also increasingly becoming unsafe for children. According to the National Crime Record Bureau Statistics, a total of 5,484 cases of child rape were reported in 2010 as compared to 5,368 in 2009. Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of cases (1,182) followed by Maharashtra (747). These two states accounted for 35.2 per cent of the total child rape cases reported in the country.
A total of 10,670 cases of kidnapping and abduction of children were reported during the year as compared to 8,945 in the previous year — a significant increase of 19.3 per cent. Delhi (2,982) has accounted for 27.9 per cent of the total cases reported in the country.
Around 100 cases of infanticide were also reported in the same year, up from 63 in 2009. The NCRB records and other studies done by non-government bodies show that child trafficking is rampant. We do not even have a central database of missing children which is updated in real time. Thousands of cases have been registered for trafficking of children. There are known ‘hubs’ of child trafficking across the country and we are not able to shut them down effectively.
The conviction rate for such heinous crimes against children stands at a meager 34%. This indicates how poorly not only our social, but also legal system — the “last line of defence” for a child — is equipped.
In light of these facts, it is time to seriously rethink what is wrong with us. Are our children really reaping the gains of freedom whose anniversary we celebrate annually? Are they free to enjoy their childhood? We, as a society, need to ensure that they get their due: a beautiful childhood!
After service in the British SAS Regiment the author became a physician and then an orthopaedic surgeon.
He has held professorial positions in Canada, Vietnam and the United States, practiced and taught orthopaedic surgery in three continents and in several wars.
He has extensive experience as an expert witness in court. Somewhere along the way, time was found to operate a four hundred acre mixed farm, a one hundred seat restaurant and to obtain a licence as a flying instructor.
The author's books are available from bookstores, the publishers, or from on-line bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indigo/Chapters.