Absentee parents in rural Rajasthan have created an increasing number of child- headed families, adding to the school dropout rate
In the absence of parents, around 60 families in Dungarpur and Bicchiwara blocks of Rajasthan are headed by children themselves.
These children of absentee parents bear the burden of grazing the cattle, cooking meals, taking care of siblings and scraping out the equivalence of a livelihood.
Obviously, this leaves them with no time or energy to engage with studies and have to dropout from school. This makes them especially vulnerable to be trafficked for work to construction sites, bt cotton fields of nearby Gujarat, hotels, oil mills and as domestic labour.
Take the case of Ashutosh (12) and Hiral (10) (names changed). Their father Ratna used to drink alcohol and beat his wife regularly. Unable to bear it, she left him three years ago and went for Nata with another man. Nata is a socially acceptable tribal practise in this area where if a woman chooses to no longer live with a man, she can go off with another man. Generally, she leaves the children behind.
Alcoholism is common in poor tribal families of this region where due to changing market dynamics, food is no longer as easy to come by as it was in earlier economic situations where entire tribal communities could live off the forest. As a result of alcoholism amongst both men and women, tuberculosis and deaths due to TB are not rare.
Mohan Lal died six years due to TB infection and one year back his wife also passed away with the same disease. Their three children, aged 15, 14 and 10 years started living with the grandparents and the entire family was surviving on his income through NREGA. A year ago, he too died, leaving the children to fend for themselves. They were getting benefit from the Rajasthan government’s Palanhar Yojana but due to an irregularity in the payment, it has become difficult for them to survive. Once in a while, their uncle steps in to help them.
Under the State government scheme, a sum of Rs. 500 per month is provided to families taking care of orphan children whose parents have either died or life imprisoned/sanctioned by court. If the children are admitted in school, the assistance is supposed to be raised to Rs. 675 per month. But several lacunae in social protection programmes ensure the programmes do not always reach the most vulnerable. Access to these programmes is far from a cake walk.
According to data collected by voluntary organisation Save the Children, at least 1022 children of six to 14 years are out of school. With an overall literacy rate of 60.78 per cent in 2011, Dungarpur remains at the bottom of the ranking of districts in not only Rajasthan but also in the country as a whole. Malnourishment is widespread and according to a survey done by Integrated Child and Development Services (ICDS) in 2011, there are 58,649 malnourished children in the district.
The symptoms of malnourishment in children in Dungarpur are so common that villagers no longer see malnourishment as a problem. In such a situation, infant child mortality is not far behind at 67. During the last two years, as many as 486 children under five years of age were found to have died with the majority of the deaths occurring within one year of the birth of the child. Most children died from preventable diseases such as recurring fever and diarrhoea, according to Save the Children.
“For any child, the best place to be brought up in is a home and not an institution or orphanage. But if it is an orphan who has nobody to take care of or is being made to do domestic chores and kept out of school by extended family members, then we strongly recommend hostel accommodation where the child is at least free from labour and able to get an education. There are some good hostels being built across Rajasthan and we need NGOs, panchayat leaders and other community members to identify and bring to our notice the children who require such assistance,” said Deepak Kalra, Chairperson, Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.