A silent tragedy

Little to rejoice: Haunted by malnutrition.  

Yet another day dedicated to children is around the corner. Is it to be a day of celebration? Or should it be a day to reflect? If you turn to the media these days, the children of our country have little to rejoice. Columns have been written and hours spent by different channels ripping apart the seams of why children are dying in West Bengal. TV anchor after another has expressed shock at the fact that children are lying on the floor in a referral hospital in Kolkata, clothes are hung in the ward, mothers are sharing beds…! Oh, the horror of it! Don't these television celebrities know that dirty wards, unclean beds, mosquito swarms, poor infrastructure are not that uncommon in government hospitals across the country? One month from now it will be another scandal, another issue. This is the nature of the beast.

Structural causes

One child under the age of five dies every 20 seconds in India. Close to 1.7 million children under five die every year in India. This is a silent tragedy crying for attention. What is even more mind numbing is the fact that the majority of these deaths can be prevented. Much of the problem is rooted in structural causes. Access to clean, safe drinking water, for example, can prevent the deaths of a number of children. Having trained health workers in the community who can diagnose symptoms of diarrhoea or pneumonia can save thousands of children's lives.

The government now spends a pittance — a piffling 1.04 per cent of the GDP — on health. Given the scale of the problem, this is baffling. About 70 per cent of Indians spend their entire income on healthcare and purchasing drugs according to the WHO! Now the Planning Commission says it will commit to spending 2.5 per cent of the GDP on health by 2017. Again, much of this is unlikely to be spent on primary healthcare. The media cannot be blamed for its attention deficit disorder. If it were not for the media, even the few instances now coming to light of children dying will go without an epitaph. Much of the debate, the angst, the anger and the hoopla unfold in print or on television. Civil society screams bloody murder. But what is extremely curious is the (in)action of the State. Apart from a few perfunctory remarks punctuated by finger pointing, those in seats of power appear almost unconcerned by the fact that India holds the No. 1 spot for the most number of children dying under the age of five. The nodal ministry for women and children has been very discreet about appearing sympathetic to the issue!

We have lived with lack of toilets, poverty, malnutrition for so long that they are not seen as political issues. Children do not constitute a vote bank; perhaps this is the reason why their deaths is not a political issue but merely a development statistic.

Another equally callous response of the State is to the issue of child labour. Here again, India is in the hall of shame for having the most number of child labourers under the age of 14: At least 40 million according to civil society. But look at the reactions of two influential policy makers on the issue of child labour:

Salman Khurshid, Union Law Minister, made a statement recently, quite audacious in the name of preserving tradition. Citing the example of carpet-weaving in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, he said, “if such traditional skills were to be preserved, a child needed to be trained to be a skilled craftsperson. Children learning traditional skills should not amount to child labour since they worked within their family and not as employees… Parents do not unnecessarily send their children to work, but economic conditions force them to do so.”

Harish Rawat, former Minister of State for Labour, justified India's reluctance to sign ILO Convention 182 which seeks to eliminate the worst forms of child labour saying, “Under existing socio-economic conditions in the country and compelling conditions, children are forced to seek employment to supplement their family income.”

Does poverty justify children being subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse? Does poverty justify children being sold into prostitution? Does poverty justify children being robbed of their childhood?

Shirking responsibility

These are feckless arguments offered to deflect the State's responsibility to send children to school and not to factories. At the turn of the 19th century, even developed economies such as Britain grappled with child labour. How did Britain or even parts of Asia, such as South Korea go about reducing child labour? Educating their children was seen as a way out of the vicious cycle of poverty perpetuating itself. These countries recognised and made child labour a social problem and even a political issue.

India has more than more than 400 million children under the age of 18. For a significant majority of these, the mere act of being born healthy, surviving until the age of five, escaping malnutrition, going to school and staying out of child labour appears to be a question mark. Perhaps we can skip the celebration this year and introspect instead. Merely signing up international treaties to protect the rights of the child will not do, the State must honour its humanitarian commitment to our future generation. It is after all its mandate.

Ananthapriya Subramanian is an independent rights activist. Email:

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 5:50:49 AM |

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