THUMB PRINT CHANGEMAKER SERIES
MIGUEL DAS QUEAH has tried to fill in a huge gap — creating a support system for children in distress in Guwahati. He founded UTSAH, a prominent child rights agency in 2011.He is also a Member of the Child Labour Task Force and Child Protection Committee (Kamrup-M) of the Government of Assam. He is an Acumen India Fellow 2017. He speaks to The Thumb Print on his endeavour
UTSAH has filled a huge void in providing a support system for children in distress. Please tell us about the genesis of the organisation?
Ans: Every I am asked about my present work with children, I inevitably attribute its seed to my learning in college. It was inside the womb St. Stephen’s College Delhi, that I came to realize the very essence of being the person I am now.
When I look back, I remember the values the college had instilled in me, in the classroom and outside of it. For me, probably more important than attending classes, were the late night conversations on the middle-eastern conflict, unending arguments over North India’s step brotherly treatment towards the Northeast, discussing the plight of children in the impoverished African continent, listening to the intriguing stories of the Tibetan freedom movement and understanding the cultural significance of Onam and Mim Kut. These are some of those valuable moments that helped me make sense of my own self in relation to this big world. In the midst of sleeplessness, I had learnt the meanings of inclusivity, freedom, justice and cultural expression.
My tenure as Vice President of Stephens in 2007-2008, afforded me the opportunity to travel to the US in 2008, as a part of a student leaders’ programme called the Study of the United States Institutes for Student Leaders, funded by the US Department of State. Apart from covering a range of subjects on leadership, this particular programme had community service as a crucial component. I had the chance to volunteer with the Kent Senior Citizens Center and the St.Leo’s Food Connection for people in need projects in Seattle, while gaining perspective on other aspects of community service in America.
Upon my return to India, after this over a month programme, there were several moments of retrospection that made me mull over the poor quality of services that my country had for all its people who are in need an comparing them with the outstanding social services in the US. I felt a deep sense of melancholy every time I saw little children begging on the Lodi Road traffic light junction, homeless children cleaning the platforms of railway stations and impoverished infants living, with their families, on the insecure pavements of Darya Ganj. On numerous occasions my call for intervention, to Government and Non-Government agencies, fell on deaf ears. Without discounting the efforts made by the civil society, I felt my country still lacked enough service provisions to ensure justice to a huge section of its citizens who were in need of care and protection. Often dejected by systemic maladies, I got lost into a world of cavernous thoughts and endless introspection. Out of college for over four months then, I started missing the secure warmth of my friends, classmates and teachers. My Stephanian ethos were in constant conflict with the realities of the world outside. However, I did manage to keep myself engaged with an American community research project and a Senior citizens welfare programme for the next two years. Both the engagements also helped be gain deep insights into the complex issues faced by various communities in India.
Around October 2010, I had the rare opportunity of meeting the Former President of India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, at his 10 Rajaji residence in New Delhi. Through the first half of this, over-an-hour, meeting I set myself upon an unremitting monologue expressing regret over the poor system of services in my country, the ineffectiveness of our government, apathy of the average Indian and how the idea of goodness had lost its value amidst the concreteness of Indian cities. After patiently hearing me out for over twenty minutes, Dr. Kalam, in his disturbingly composed demeanour, looked straight into my eyes and questioned me : “Miguel, what are YOU doing to address these issues of your own country?” I had no answer to his very simple question. In fact, it was most unsettling for me to realize that I didn’t have an instant answer, right and on time.
Before I could gather adequate words to construct a suitable response, Dr. Kalam instructed me to speculate and find a solution to the many problems that my country had been afflicted with. He made me understand that even though many things had gone wrong in this country, there were still other things that could go right. Those many things could go right only if young people, like me, understood the right values and collectively got down to the task of Nation building. “It is easier to sit in a drawing room, arguing about the illiteracy amongst Indian children, than to actually start teaching a group of children in the neighbouring slum area”, he remarked.
This valued conversation made me realize that without my direct contribution the idea of a developed India remains incomplete. I am an integral part of that marvellous edifice that makes India a great Nation. I also understood that a country’s destiny rests upon the effective contribution of each and every member of its society. With a sense of determination, I began my work of starting UTSAH. Since, children are politically the most disempowered, I decided to work around children’s rights.
What made you decide to come back from Delhi to work in Guwahati?
While I had stared corresponding with several young leaders across New Delhi about starting UTSAH, I had made a visit to Guwahati for a programme organized by Amar Ghar Old Age Home. In this programme, I had the opportunity to confer with litterateur Late Mamoni Raisom Goswami. When I revealed my plans about starting UTSAH in New Delhi, she told me “ Miguel, you are an Assamese lad. If young people like you move out, you will just end up sitting in a posh restaurant in Delhi, someday, complaining about the sad state of affairs in Assam. Miguel, Assam needs you. If you can’t clean your own courtyard, you will never be able to clean the world.” These words touched my conscience. Also, later that evening, when I was discussing my plans with Shankardev Chowdhury (I had met him during an interview that he was conducting for Doordarshan), he questioned me if I had Assam in perspective for the future. Being a boy from Assam, I felt like an outsider when he threw that question at me. The next day I flew back to Delhi. Within a week’s time I returned back to Guwahati- lock, stock and barrel. By then I had decided that I would start UTSAH in Assam, my own motherland.
What are the main issues children face in a place like Guwahati?
I would consider children living in the slum areas or informal settlements of the city as the largest and the most vulnerable group.
According to a survey conducted by Guwahati Municipal Corporation through 2013-2014, the slum population of Guwahati alone stood at 1, 39, 296, with 217 slum pockets in the notified and non-notified categories. Regardless, of the availability of accurate statistical data, the objective reality about the existence of urban slum areas in Guwahati, constituting a sizeable human population, remains unaltered. If the latest survey, by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation, is to be taken as reference, out of the total 1, 39, 296 people, across 26, 090 households, 52,180 would be children (If minimum 2 children per household is considered to be the optimal-UN Standard Replacement Level Fertility Rate). This would mean that Guwahati city alone has a staggering child population (0-18) of over 50,000 living in slum areas approximately.
Unable to merge with the existing structure of the big city (high rents, low absorption), several migrant families are pushed to the margins of the society and have to live under extreme conditions of poverty and deprivation. If we were to look at the situation from a rights based perspective, we can see several violations of children’s rights in these areas.
Without going into quantitative explanation, child Labour, substance Abuse, out-of-school children, child marriage, child sexual abuse, malnourishment, inaccessibility to sanitation and safe drinking water, recurrent homelessness due to evictions are some of the serious risks faced by children living in the slum areas of the city.
Guwahati, too, faces the problem of street children. Due to various socio-economic factors many children runway from their homes in rural Assam and migrate to Guwahati. Unemployment and high rents compel these children to live on the streets. The large number of children in the Guwahati Railway Station is indicative of the magnitude of this problem.
Slum areas create the conditions that compel children to come into conflict with law. The existing complex conditions of slum areas and streets affect the social learning of children and has a negative impact on their behaviour. The situation of continued deprivation breeds a culture of violence and crime in slum areas. This in turn promotes social schemas in children that combine to form a criminogenic knowledge structure that shapes situational interpretations legitimating or compelling criminal and anti-social behaviour. This has given rise to the number of slum area children coming in conflict with law in Guwahati.
Institutionally, though Guwahati city has some of the better child protection systems in the State, we have a long way to go. We are still in need of a child friendly police system, a child friendly court, child friendly teaching spaces and other protection and development support like counselling services in schools etc. In the teaching space, recurrent use of corporal punishment, as a means to discipline children, is becoming a huge protection related concern.
How do you co-ordinate with other organisations?
Any development programme cannot be fulfilled in isolation. We have collaborated with several organizations to further the mission of the Organization. We have collaborated with several organizations and groups like North East Network, MindIndia, Impulse NGO, Alcoholic Anonymous, Smile Foundation India, Aangan Trust Maharashtra, UNICEF Assam, State Child Protection Society, the CID, Concept Educations, Royal Global School and CII.
What steps should be taken to make Guwahati a child-friendly city?
There are many steps that have to be taken to address the issues of children in Guwahati, more sustainably. Some of the problem are too complex to explain in this interview. I will touch upon a few things that can help make Guwahati a Child protection and child-friendly city.
Every child has a right to safe shelter. Therefore, it is important for the State to ensure that every child has access to permanent housing. If not more, approximately 50’000 children in Guwahati city are still living in structurally inadequate housing. If the ‘Housing for all by 2022’ or Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY), the mega housing scheme of Indian Government is realized Guwahati could soon become slum free.
Guwahati has a massive Child Labour problem. Approximately 200 child labourers have been rescued by Childline from April till December 2016 alone. If the State Convergent Plan of Action on Child Labour is effectively implemented by the Government and the Civil Society, we could hope for a reduction of child labour by 2021. Large scale awareness, effective policing, more civil society action and conviction of employers can also help in addressing the issue.
Urban Health Centres (UHC’s) can play a crucial role in addressing preventable diseases, peculiar to slum area children. Upgradation of health care infrastructure, outreach activities aimed at prevention, friendly behavioural traits by Medical Officers (to improve stakeholder-beneficiary relationship), can reduce disease burden on communities and can minimize the health expenditures for the State Exchequer too.
Corporal punishment has become a constant source of concern for children, especially the ones attending public schools in the city. Most of these cases go unreported. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to get The Assam Corporal Punishment for Educational Institutions (Prohibition) Bill, 2010 passed in the Assam Assembly. This would help act as a deterrent to curb Violence Against Children (VAC) in schools.
“Street” children in Guwahati are often subject to various forms of abuse. It is necessary for the Civil Society and the State to undertake initiatives for rehabilitation of such children. Adequate Child Care Institution’s(CCI’s), upgraded Childline Services and adequate staffing for the District Child Protection Office(for home visits, counselling, raising sponsorships, making care plans etc) can help make a breakthrough for addressing this long-standing issue.
Cases of Child Sexual Abuse(CSA) is on the rise in Guwahati. State sponsored awareness initiatives(in the school and community level)-for prevention, a trained, dedicated and prompt Special Juvenile Police Unit(SJPU)-for registration of complaint, arrest and filing of chargesheet; and a dedicated Legal Services Authority (LSA)- for speedy conviction of offenders are necessary to realize justice for children. Child friendly police stations and child friendly courts would help in reduction of trauma for survivors of child sexual abuse.
Small sized, professional drop-in centers can assist in all child-related cases, through guidance and referral can help to provide support in distress situations.
In early 2016, Guwahati city was incorporated as one of the first 20 cities to receive funding under the Smart City Mission. While risk management and infrastructural progressions are necessary constituents of a “smart city”, safety and security of children is crucial to the sustainable development of the city. In fact, one of the core structural elements in the Smart City Project entails safety and security of citizens, particularly that of women and children. Therefore, the concerns of vulnerable children are important to achieve inclusive development.
The Guwahati Police (specially at the Thana Level) should be trained in Child Rights regularly. If the Police becomes child friendly, most concerns of children in the city vis-à-vis their protection would be addressed. Police inaction results in failure of juvenile justice.
The number of children coming into conflict with law is increasing in Guwahati. Slum areas and streets create the conditions that compel children to come into conflict with law. The existing complex conditions of slum areas and streets affect the social learning of children and has a negative impact on their behaviour. The situation of continued deprivation breeds a culture of violence and crime in slum areas. This in turn promotes social schemas in children that combine to form a criminogenic knowledge structure that shapes situational interpretations legitimating or compelling criminal and antisocial behaviour. If you look at all the cases, most of the children involved in various offences belong to slum areas of the city. Most of these offences include burglary and theft. These are poverty/survival-related offences and, therefore, requires a more comprehensive intervention at the community level.
Lastly and most importantly, the better-off Guwahatians should empathise with the issues concerning excluded children of the city. This would help us in getting the rights-related issues to the frontline. Public concern can move the State machinery towards fulfilling their duties towards these children more effectively.