Children must be heard and not just seen in policies that affect them
A few weeks ago, through a gazette notification, the relationship of the child with the state was rearticulated, in some measure, through the National Policy for Children, 2013.
The well-written document, which acknowledges the child as an individual and the subject of his/her own development, displays a quiet confidence and sense of purpose. Yet, it leaves child rights advocates uneasy.
In the past few months, this Union Cabinet has made some over-due changes to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act and brought in legislation providing greater protection for children against sexual offences. Along the way, the Juvenile Justice Act was amended yet again and the Food Security Bill gave an across-the-board commitment to ensure that no child goes hungry. The gazette notification of the NPC thus marks a watershed event in the articulation of policy — delayed by attempts to reword it — on behalf of the child.
The language used in the NPC points to national consensus and clarity on measures to ensure that children grow up healthy and happy: “Survival, health, nutrition, development, education, protection and participation are the undeniable rights of every child and are the key priorities of this policy.” But that’s while sitting in Delhi, reading the document.
In a dusty village not too far from the highway to Delhi, an anganwadi worker is attempting to do what she is expected to do — feed children khara, unsweetened khichdi, three times a week, and meetha (sweetened) khichdi on alternate days. That’s the order and she’s given sugar rationed accordingly. There is a slight problem. The children refuse to eat the khara kichdi. “Haath nahin lagaate lagate[they won’t touch it],” says the worker, pointing to the 12-odd cherubs, each sitting before an untouched plate of khichdi . Her assistant walks in and carefully adds a thimbleful of sugar to each mound of khichdi. Within minutes, the food has been eaten and the now noisy children are lining up to have their hands washed. “I’ve explained how to handle the situation,”complains the anganwadi worker, “but THEY don’t understand children!”
“They” are the individuals who draw up policies, make up the plans of action, who give the orders and ration sugar according to a generic notion of what is the role of children in the State-adult-child relationship.
That role had been clearly laid down in the National Policy for Children, 1974. It states: “Equal opportunities for development to all children during the period of growth should be our aim, for this would serve our larger purpose of reducing inequality and [bringing about] social justice.” Clearly, the 1974 policy saw children as being instrumental to a larger nation-building project.
That document describes a unity of action, an equity in approach towards all children that had marked the Nehruvian era. Reading, even after so many years, the transcript of the discussion in the Rajya Sabha of the NPC, 1974, reveals that the parliamentarians, who had not been involved in its formulation, were uncomfortable with the one-size-fits-all approach and probed the government’s knowledge of both what it meant to be a child and — equally important — what were the assumptions with which the state was engaging with children.
The depth of engagement with the issue of children’s relationship with the state was best explained by the socialist, Raj Narain, who sought to put an end to the then common practice of lining up children to wave at visiting dignitaries: “This practice makes children grow up believing they are less than others. It affects their sense of self negatively. This is not acceptable.”
Just as the discussion of the old NPC in Parliament raised issues which the implementers were forced to engage with while interacting with children and their families in villages and urban slums, the context in which the new NPC has been notified raises issues of changing government priorities, growing social and economic inequalities, which are just as deeply troubling.
The old NPC, for the first time, articulated beliefs about the nature and needs of children, the responsibilities of adults, and elucidated what social worker Rameshwari Nehru had unambiguously articulated in 1948 — children are the responsibility of the state.
The new one does more. In a first, its understanding of children’s rights emerges from within the Constitution and the indigenous civil liberties movement, (that’s code for the nationwide anti-Emergency movements). While accepting the idea that children had a right to participate in defining their present and their future, the drafters have clearly struggled with the question of participation — how much and in what context.
Unfortunately, the debate and discussions and, possibly, the difficult negotiations have led to a situation where the new NPC actually retreats from the Ministry of Women and Children’s own ongoing Strategic Plan of Action (2011-2016). In a succinct, unambiguous statement, the document states: “For the next five years, it will be a priority for the Ministry to increase the level of child participation and create mechanisms to facilitate the incorporation of children’s views into mainstream policy-making and program formulation processes.”
It is particularly worrying that the NPC 2013’s Plan of Action section on child participation has been almost entirely reproduced, but the only sentence left out was the one above. This is the only sentence which enables the creating of space for children’s views to be included in all policy-making, not just those which fall within the ministry’s remit.
Given that the entire state edifice has been built on a certain understanding of adult responsibilities — the machinery geared to turning out the kind of citizens who will retain the status quo — the clear struggle for drafters has been to understand the implications of accepting children as equal. After all, adult responsibilities do not diminish just because children have the right to participation.
There is thus, within the new NPC document, a longing for the seemingly halcyon past, when universality of care for children was unquestioned, adults’ responsibilities were accepted and children were to be seen and not heard. Fundamentally, the policy document reveals the difficulty in the new discourse of child participation, the demand for children to be seen as equals now rather than as adults-in-the-making, an asset, an investment for the future. Developmental studies scholar Robert Chambers tells this story of children’s rights to participation and adult responsibilities best. In a classroom, a teacher stopped to ask a young child, busy drawing freehand: “So what are you drawing?”
“God, I’m drawing God,” came the preoccupied reply from the child.
“But no one knows, what God looks like” said the puzzled teacher.
“They will in a minute” responded the bent head.
The NPC, 2013, which begins so well, is about adult concerns and an acknowledgement of their limitations. It could so easily have been about children and the lives in India they have the right to re-make.
(Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan is with the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.)