Interview

‘Our living adds to the sufferings of poor children'

SHANTHA SINHA: 'If it is fashionable to talk about organic food why can it not be fashionable to consume child labour free products?' Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

To transform the concept of children's rights from mere academic discourse to action at the grass-roots level has been a rather difficult journey for the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). This is because this is a country where parents believe in patronising children and the government sees them only as beneficiaries of its schemes. No one considers them as equals. Magsaysay Award winner Shantha Sinha, serving her second term as chairperson of the Commission, shares her experiences with Aarti Dhar on the fourth foundation day of the panel while calling upon people to give up consuming products that involve the use of child labour.

Can you describe the aims and objectives of the NCPCR that came into existence in 2007 through an Act of Parliament passed in 2005?

Broadly speaking, the NCPCR has been mandated to monitor and protect the rights of children, including reviewing the legal and policy framework. Considering the magnitude and size of the population of children in India, it has evolved methodologies such as field visits which have entailed meeting and having a dialogue with children, civil society, non-governmental organisations, and the state; conducting public hearings; the issuance of communications as letters, directives, guidelines and recommendations to the Government; a policy dialogue with the ministries concerned; responding to complaints and taking suo moto cognisance of the violation of child rights.

Considering that the issue of children's rights is a highly debated or sensitive one in India, how is the response when you reach out to people, especially in the remote areas where an awareness of entitlements is extremely low even among the adults?

In the initial years, the response was very slow because not many knew of the Commission and its seriousness. But now we are being taken seriously. This is also because we have been following up issues.

Unfortunately, we are often confronted with a lack of sensitivity among adults about the rights of children. Children have never been regarded as an important constituency by the political system and society. They are seen only in a patronising manner. We have to talk to people and tell them that children need to be treated with dignity and as equals. It is not enough that you give them love, it is equally important to give them dignity. The moment you start treating them as equals, you give them dignity.

So how does one deal with a society that looks at children in a patronising manner?

This has been a challenge. One would have expected institutions meant for children to have a place of pride in society; like a village should be proud of having the best anganwadi centre to take care of its children. But that ownership and pride, I find, is lacking. If an institution functions well it is only because of a highly motivated individual. There is no institutional building process in the ways services are provided to children. There is so much tokenism. An anganwadi worker has to deal with so many things, which is unfair. She is the only person to deal with the children in the most precious age group. While a hike in their earning, as announced in the Budget, is a welcome step, I think she deserves more for the professional services rendered by her.

Similarly, overcrowding in classrooms and the quality of food served under the Mid-Day Meal scheme still remain major challenges. The task is how to get these institutions work.

How grave is the issue of child labour in India and do you have any suggestions to generate awareness among the people?

Child labour is a huge problem. I sincerely believe that there is a need to sensitise people about the plight of working children in the country. We also need to have a consumer culture like that in Europe where people do not buy products involving child labour. One may describe it as trade related issue but there are many people who really think they owe it to children. We need to develop this kind of consumer ethics.

We should realise how our living adds to the sufferings of poor children. There are a lot of linkages between our lifestyle and the impoverishment of the poor. For example, it may sound exaggerated but some girl child must have sacrificed her schooling to look after her siblings and the house after her parents go to work in the fields. It is not that they are forced to sacrifice her future for us but there are no institutions like crèches to take care of their needs. Children are employed in the textile industry, construction work and in brick kilns in large numbers.

If it is fashionable to talk about organic food why can it not be fashionable to consume child labour free products? If it can happen in Europe it should happen in India too.

The child rights panel has an important role in monitoring the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. Major areas of concerns are bringing out of school children within the school system and banning corporal punishment. How do you ensure this?

The NCPCR is in the process of creating RTE Advisers in the States who will network with hundreds and thousands of child defenders at the grass-roots level.

The Commission has issued guidelines to schools, local bodies, district and State authorities on corporal punishment. No distinction between forms of violence has been made as it considered that ‘all forms of corporal punishment are a fundamental breach of human rights.' The Commission has heard innumerable cases of corporal punishment, and violence and suicide of children for being subjected to insinuating, and often unreasonable, remarks by school teachers. In 2008 it was reported that there were 98 cases of suicide by children in Tamil Nadu alone as a consequence of corporal punishment.

Public hearings have proved to be a highly effective method of gaining insights into social issues. Has the Commission also gained?

The NCPCR has been moved by heroic accounts of children who have repeatedly risked their lives to escape drudgery and solitude for freedom and liberation. During the public hearing on child labour in cotton seed farming, where the purpose was to look at the violation of the rights of children engaged in the production of hybrid cotton seeds, the Commission also gained insights into how large numbers of children migrating from Rajasthan to Gujarat, also work in ginning mills, textile factories, salt pans and brick kilns. The public hearings on corporal punishment in Tamil Nadu also revealed the insult and injustice meted out to poor children, driving some of them to attempt and even commit suicide. This gave the Commission a deeper knowledge on the impact of corporal punishment on children, their loneliness and lack of support and forums to express their difficulties within the school system.

The testimonies of children affected and infected with HIV have been equally revealing. Public hearings in Dantewada showed how vulnerable tribal children were victimised by all parties — both the government and non-government agencies — and deprived of their basic rights to health, survival, food and nutrition, education and protection. It revealed the impact civil unrest can have on children.

Are there areas of conflict with the government?

Considering the fact that issues relating to children are as much in the list of the Centre as the State governments, the Commission's thrust has been on understanding and reviewing the basis, application and actual implementation of legal frameworks, policies and programmes at both levels. Our Commission is fully conscious of its role in the context of India's federalism and the dynamics of Centre-State relations.

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