Working with children

In the year 1989, recognizing that in all countries of the world, there are children living in exceptionally difficult conditions and that such children required special consideration, the United Nations accepted the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the standard instrument for protecting the rights of every child.

 

In 1992 India acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), committing itself to undertaking measures that ensure the survival, protection, participation and development of its children. The accession to this international convention recognized the fact that children in India too faced myriad forms of adversities.

 

In affirmation of the CRC as the paramount benchmark for the protection of the rights of the child, the Government of India created manifold legislations and policies like the National Nutrition Policy of 1993, Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection) Act 2000, Right to Education Act 2002, National Charter for Children 2003, National Plan of Action for Children 2005, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 and most recently the Protection of Children from Sexual offences Act of 2012. The Indian State further attempted several other measures to ensure that earlier laws like Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act 1956, The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act of 1986, Infants Milk Substitute Act of 1992, found accomplishment.

 

The 20th-21st century almost became like an era of schemes. A good deal of High level deliberations at South Block of New Delhi on Conceptualization, Spatial Coverage, Implementation Mechanism, Financial Allocation (most crucial) and Monitoring processes, led to the regeneration of schemes like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Schemes 1975, Mid Day Meal Scheme 1995, Integrated Child Protection Scheme 2009 to other schemes with Sanskritized branding such as the Balika Samruddhi Yojana 1997, the Dhanalakshmi Yojana of 2008 et al. Not to be left behind, our very own Assam Secretariat too spawned schemes with endearing names like the Majoni of 2009 and Mamoni of 2012.

 

Undoubtedly, “Intelligent India” did produce some of the best blueprints to address the social and economic problems faced by our children. The gift of Stanford Scholars, Larry Page and Sergey Brin renders few of us the opportunity of learning about these remarkable efforts made by the Indian state, while Ashoka Fellow, Jimmy Wales’ innovation furnishes good, rather outstanding, material for College discussions and Parliamentary debates.

 

In the development sector , capacity building and training have become the lingua franca for giants like the UNICEF and WHO and localized pocket-sized players too, have busied themselves with making impeccable project proposals along with picture perfect documentation. Drawing heavily from the current trend of development initiatives, the LFA and SWOT models of planning seem to be the only way to redemption; and Mckinseys and IIMs seem to be the only ones holding the key to deliverance. Consulting firms have now become the Mecca for development activists.

 

A generation of empathetic and young social workers who initially go out into the world of service, end up either sitting around decorated office room tables, discussing programme matrixes about ” how to sum up the lives of children in pain and suffering into a 45 sides project proposal” or taking inter-continental flights to the Americas to attend prodigal conferences and symposiums.

 

On a fine Wednesday evening while a Social Scientist releases his quantitative masterpiece on “The Economic Growth of India” amongst an august audience of the high-browed academia, twenty homeless children find their way onto the insecure platforms of the Guwahati Railway Station. While a Minister of the State Cabinet pushes his way out through the bustling traffic of the capital city, to deliver his lecture at a UNICEF Event, an infant dies due of sub-optimal breast-feeding in a remote forest village in the conflict ridden district of Kokrajhar. While a coterie of bureaucrats busy themselves organizing a gilded buffet for the visiting Member of the Human Rights Commission of India, a 9-year-old child living in the fetid slum area of Uzan Bazar in Guwahati stays awake all night long, with the hope that his father would bring him some bread the next morning.

As a Social Worker, I practice the customary ritual of carping about affairs that have gone wrong with the system. However, at no point of time, have I lost faith about things that can possibly go right. As a matter of fact, I do acknowledge the sincerity with which the Government mechanism, the sagacious development ring- masters and the astute management Gurus have discovered some of the best clues to address crucial issues concerning the children of India. From morbidity to abuse, our country could evolve some of the best social policy and solutions in the world.

In as many ways as possible, I have always tried to be the positivist: founded an Organization, worked with children in a slum area, presented papers to the Government on Child Protection, had long meetings with bureaucrats and attended numerous seminars on the IMRs. However, in this entire merry-go-round of “poverty-abuse-labour-education-economic growth-board room meetings-input-outcome-sustainability” I have felt an unfathomable vacuum that has kept me restless all the while.

May sound clichéd, but every time I drove through the energetic high-street of GS Road of Guwahati, the glimpses of emaciated young children collecting the city’s waste, pulled me down to a state of extreme poignancy. And every time I would go out with my colleagues for a greasy working lunch to the KFC Store at Zoo Road, the sight of woebegone tiny children begging outside had made me cringe with a mellow sense remorse. Slowly, the Government meetings and robust board room exchanges began to appear amorphous to me. At the end of it all, I am inevitably left playing a Q&A game with myself. With time, even the walls of my 1300 sq feet apartment in East Guwahati refused to be my best companions.

 

All the while, I have tried my best to reason as to why our Nation has been struggling to mother, to nurture, to protect her own children. What were the reasons for the abject failure of the ideals enshrined in World Convention that promises to safeguard the future of our vulnerable children? What were the reasons for such extreme desolation, despite having some of the best blue prints of development?

 

As they say, “Time heals what reason cannot”. Recently, a good friend gifted me with Tahereh Mafi’s dystopian thriller named “Shatter Me”. Though this wasn’t exactly the kind of literary genre I would otherwise relish, a single line from that book offered me the answer to all my anxieties. “All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.” This single quote explained all that has wrong with our system.

 

A Henry Gannt Chart may prove to be magical while developing detailed database software for Infosys. But would it succeed in forecasting and addressing the violence on children in the fitful regions of Bodoland? I am not quite sure.

 

If human life were to be measured in numerics, then, a good education, a good meal and a good job should have been the yardsticks for measuring the attainment of a perfect society. But is that really so? Are all our educated children free from exploitation? Are all our healthy and nourished youth free from substance abuse? Are all our corporate honchos free from gender bias? Again, I am not quite sure.

 

Perhaps, it is time that we renovate our system, renovate it, this time round, with a lot of compassion and care. Inclusive, impactful and equitable development is only possible when we infuse a sense of empathy, not sympathy, into our rather synthetic structure and our style of working in the development sector. If we are to make a positive transformation in our society, we have to feel strongly for one another’s sufferings. To create tangible changes in the lives of our very young, we too have to smear our faces with the dust from the play fields of the infants living in the char areas of Assam. We too have to drink from the well that satiates the thirst of the young children living in the slum areas of Guwahati and we too have to sleep alongside the sidewalks that host our homeless brethren. I strongly believe, only a touch from the heart can make all the wrong go right.

 

Such a sense of empathy is only ignited under the open starry skies on the ghats of the historical Sukreshwar Temple, not under the white washed ceilings of air-conditioned, soulless office chambers. Empathy is expressed by unfeigned words of kindness, not by dispassionate dialogues in the dreary desert of colossal Town Halls or Habitat Centres. Empathy is practiced by personally touching the lives of people who are in need of care and protection, not by presenting cold imprints of misery in 200-side project reports.

 

I sincerely do not wish to indulge on a reflective rant about our systemic wreckage. Nor do I wish to daunt the scientific efforts made by our scientific Indian maestros. All I wish is to break the deafening silence of our development stakeholders and the way they addressed our civic and social issues. We need to remind ourselves of our shortcomings and provide solutions for the same by adopting more humanely identifiable methodologies of development. More importantly, we should have the right kind of people doing the right kind of work. If one were to love children only on papers and PPT’s, can we ever dream about bringing in a progressive change in the lives of those many children who are in need of care and protection?

 

Development players should be able to cry at the injustices suffered by our innocent children.They should be able to feel, from the deepest realm of their hearts, the despair faced by our malnourished children , before they decide to take any structured remedial initiatives for their well being.Only an approach of the heart can address social issues that have long remained unresolved.Any other form of action would be a futile exercise of impassivity, leading to nothing but obscurity.

 

In a country, where a third of the world’s malnourished children live (UNICEF), one cannot morally afford to have National Level Consultations serving the most luxuriant luncheons for its participants. In a country, where around 7.6 million children live in sullied slum areas, one cannot morally afford to spend a fortune decorating office spaces. These are the things that need to be done away with and driven out from our collective national conscience. With such blatant display of apathy one can never hope to achieve the goal of creating of a healthy and vibrant Nation.

 

Every year, the Republic Day is celebrated amidst so much grandeur and opulence. The President of India, pontifical in his paraphernalia of guardsmen and stretch limousines, entourages through the ornamental Rajpath. The decorated State tableaus and the extraordinary exhibition of might by the Army, Navy, Air force and the Para-military forces fills everyone in the world with awe.

 

I, somehow, could never come to terms with the idea of the Republic Day being celebrated amidst so much splendour, which would be totally unintelligible to a child in the flood and erosion-stricken districts of Upper Assam, who lives in constant fear of being washed away by the relentless waters of the mighty Brahmaputra. Nor does it make sense to the young girl who has not been able to go to school due to the lack of a proper road, in an outlying settlement of Morigaon District in Assam. Such obvious display of apathy can never fulfill the dream of making India a flourishing Nation.

 

The unimaginable expenditures incurred in such cosmetic celebration could have been very well utilized in providing healthy milk to each and every child living in the remote villages of Assam, Orissa or Madhya Pradesh. It could have been utilized in upgrading local schools to match up with the facilities provided in expensive private institutions and could have been justly utilized in providing bare clothing to the thousands of homeless children who make do with throwaways of the affluent.

 

A fellow citizen once rebuked that it is important for a country to reassure itself of its might and exhibit its glory to the world. But the significant question lies in reflecting on what are we actually reminding ourselves of, or for that matter, what are we actually showing to the world? Are we only reaffirming to ourselves about the emerald tea gardens of Jorhat or showing to the world how beautiful it would be to come and spend a monsoon vacation with the family here? Or are we just reaffirming ourselves of our military might, taking solace in the fact that we are adequately protected from the onslaught of our errant neighbours?

 

How about reaffirming to ourselves about the stand we need to take to curb Infant Mortality or the Homelessness of hungry innocent children? and telling the world that ” Look here we have a problem and we are doing our very best to solve it.” I firmly believe that we all wish to have an India that is proud; proud of each and every citizen of hers, not an India that is vain and callous. A special tableau of 200 malnourished children and 200 street dwellers wouldn’t be a bad idea to start with. Just give it a thought.

 

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only Today. Let us begin.” – Mother Teresa

Migel Das Queah

Migel Das Queah

Miguel Das Queah is a Social Worker, working on Child Rights & Protection in Assam, and can be contacted at miguelqueah@gmail.com