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Is India dangerous for children? Very.

EducationWorld September 06 | Cover Story EducationWorld

A transnational poll conducted by AlertNet, a humanitarian website of the Reuters Foundation, voted India as the sixth most dangerous country worldwide for children after Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Iraq and Somalia. Dilip Thakore reports

t’s a scathing indictment which ought to have seared the conscience of the nation. but within the indifferent establishment of shining India which seldom feels the dint of pity, it has caused hardly a ripple. On july 11 alertnet, a humanitarian website maintained by the London-based Reuters Foundation, published the findings of a transnational poll which voted India as the sixth most dangerous country worldwide for children after Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Iraq, Somalia. more hazardous than the war-torn Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Myanmar also listed among the top ten most child-hostile nations. 

Sudan, Uganda and Congo were judged the world’s most dangerous countries for children because of their perpetual civil wars which have brought “death, disease and displacement to millions”. To determine the most hazardous countries for children, AlertNet polled 112 hand-picked aid experts and journalists around the world. “Around half of respondents picked Sudan as one of their three choices, with many singling out the troubled western region of Darfur. Some 1.8 million children have been affected by a three-year conflict in Darfur, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) where they risk being recruited to fight and are especially vulnerable to disease and malnutrition,” writes Megan Rowling, a London-based journalist on the AlertNet website (

Predictably, this shameful report created hardly a ripple in the celebrities obsessed Indian media which mirrors the indifference of society to the rights and well-being of the country’s 100 million- plus invisible children denied education and slaving in fields, factories and shanty-towns of shining India, the new most favoured destination of foreign investors. The few dailies which buried this story in their inside pages expressed scepticism about the poll methodology which included democratic India with a representative Parliament and completely free press, in a worst offenders’ list comprising war-torn, basket case nations.

Perhaps the most indignant reaction to the poll was of Hasan Suroor, London correspondent of the Chennai-based daily The Hindu. “It requires a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that children are more at risk in India than in countries where they are caught up in armed conflicts and civil war-like conditions. And clearly those who put the list together have it in spades (sic) with the result that only Darfur (Sudan), Northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Somalia are recognised as more dangerous than India,” wrote Suroor (July 19).

Perhaps the reason why the AlertNet indictment of India as a dangerous country for growing children has been ignored or rubbished as exaggerated, is that in the popular perception the word ‘danger’ is associated with violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping and rape, the incidence of which is arguably less in India than in countries torn by civil war, foreign invasion and anarchy. But this country has been ranked among the world’s most dangerous societies for children because ‘danger’ has been widely defined in the AlertNet poll. The poll also weighs the danger posed to vulnerable children by chronic malnutrition, hunger and disease, homelessness and denial of education. It’s more than likely that the hand-picked respondents were highly aware of India’s pathetic record in combating the ‘soft’ dangers and deprivations which children in the world’s most populous democracy experience on a daily basis.

“India is being hailed as a future economic powerhouse, yet 1.2 million children under five die from malnutrition every year. Child labour is outlawed but tens of millions are forced to work to help feed their families or pay loan sharks,” says the AlertNet report, adding that 60-115 million Indian children are at work and malnutrition affects nearly half of under-fives.

But while this humiliating indictment has been ignored by the media and/ or has aroused the hackles of patriotic journalists, child rights activists and educationists with genuine domain knowledge are unsurprised by India’s poor rating in the poll. “I’m in complete agreement with the respondents of the poll. India is a very dangerous country for growing children. The single antidote for all the dangers to which children are exposed, is good quality education which would make them knowledgeable about their rights and equip them to fend for themselves. Yet half a century after the Constitution mandated free and compulsory education for all children upto the age of 14, and despite the 86th Amendment to the Constitution which diluted this mandate and decreed free and compulsory elementary education to all children aged between six-14, there is no indication of whole-hearted implementation of even this diluted provision,” says Dr. V. P. Niranjan Aradhya, senior research officer at the Centre for the Child and Law of the prestigious National Law School University of India, Bangalore, commonly acknowledged as the country’s top legal education academy.

According to Aradhya despite the consensus of opinion within NGOs and child rights activist groups that Central legislation is necessary to give effect to the 86th Amendment, the duty of implementing the model Right to Education Bill flowing out of the constitutional amendment has been shifted to the states. “In effect the Central government has abdicated its duty to ensure provision of equal quality education to children as required by the 86th Amendment Act. Quite obviously the Central government is less than serious about educating children to prepare them to cope and earn decent livelihoods. This is what makes India a very dangerous country for children,” explains Aradhya.

Box 1

Silent malnutrition danger 

Fast track, shining India reportedly the darling of foreign investors, has the dubious distinction of hosting one-third of the world’s under-nourished children. According to the State of the World’s Children 2006, a global survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), 30 percent of children born underweight worldwide during the period 1998-2004 were Indian. A massive 47 percent of India’s under-five population is moderately to severely underweight, and 46 percent is stunted. It’s a measure of the extent to which this country’s child population is neglected that in the People’s Republic of China the corresponding percentages are 4 (percentage of world’s underweight children), 8 (moderately or severely underweight) and 14 (stunted).

The incidence of child malnutrition varies across states with Madhya Pradesh recording the highest percentage (55) and Kerala the lowest (27). Poor access to healthcare services, unbalanced and inadequate diet, inferior quality of healthcare during pregnancy and nutrition bias against girls are contributory factors. Early under-nourishment has long-term consequences because it impedes the motor, sensory, cognitive, social and emotional development of children.

Moreover in contemporary India one-third of all adult women are underweight. Inadequate care of women and girl children especially during pregnancy, results in low birth weight babies. Nearly 30 percent of all newborns have low birth weight, making them vulnerable to further malnutrition and disease. Vitamin and minerals deficiencies also adversely affect children’s survival and development and 74 percent of children under age three, more than 90 percent of adolescent girls and 50 percent of women in India are anaemic. Iodine deficiency, which reduces learning capacity by up to 13 percent, is widespread because fewer than half of all households use iodised salt. Despite this multitude of child development problems, India’s annual healthcare outlay (centre plus states) aggregates a mere 0.9 percent of GDP, perhaps the lowest ratio worldwide.

The concept of ‘positive deviance’ — building on local success stories against malnutrition — is being promoted and experimented in 1,015 villages with a combined population of 1 million, including 122,000 children under three years of age, in West Bengal in collaboration with Unicef. The campaign emphasises behaviour change through participatory learning and community mobilisation. “For Unicef, tackling malnutrition is a priority issue and we’re going local to promote long term solutions,” says Gaurav Garg, the Delhi-based spokesperson of Unicef.

Autar Nehru (Delhi)

Certainly measured by the yardstick of education deprivation, contemporary India is very dangerous territory. According to Census 2001, the number of children (below 18 years of age) in India aggregated a massive 415 million. Of these an estimated 100 million were in the pre-school age group zero-five. Of the remaining 315 million, 200 million countrywide were enrolled in primary school. This means that 115 million ‘lost’ children became invisible and completely exposed to danger of all types including malnutrition, hunger, forced labour, sexual abuse among other horrors.

Nor are the 202 million in the country’s crowded, ill-equipped 900,000 primary schools much better off. Over 53 percent (106 million) drop out before they complete class VII, i.e primary school. Of the remainder only 33 million attend secondary school and a mere 10 million are admitted into institutions of tertiary education. As a result of this unprecedented wastage of human capital, only 7-8 percent of the nation’s youth in the age group 18-24 is in tertiary education as against 81 percent in the US and 49 percent in Japan.

If into these dismal statistics one factors in ground realities such as pathetic school infrastructure, the world’s highest pupil-teacher ratio, chronic teacher absenteeism (25 percent on any given day) which result in abysmal learning outcomes in the nation’s classrooms, it’s plain that 60 years of socialist-style centrally planned development later, the sanctimoniously democratic, socialist, secular etc Republic of India has conspicuously failed and neglected to create a safe growth environment for the nation’s 415 million children.

Indeed for the average primary or secondary student, the daily journey to school and back is strewn with disincentives and dangers. For a start, the overwhelming majority of children are unlikely to experience a good night’s rest given the pathetic housing stock of the nation. An estimated 40-50 percent of people in India’s 300 largest cities live in wretched urban slums, where children usually have to wake early to fetch and store water. Likewise the great majority of households in rural India too, comprise flimsy huts bereft of water and electricity.

Next, the ride or passage to school is a hazardous enterprise. In urban India, public transport is horribly over-crowded and indisciplined with the result that children experience great difficulty in availing smooth passage to school. Even for urban middle class children who travel in school buses, the journey to school and back is dangerous. Following a school bus accident in 1997 in Wazirabad (Delhi) in which 28 children drowned after a rashly driven school bus plunged into the river Yamuna, the Supreme Court of India (M.C. Mehta vs Union of India) mandated elaborate safety guidelines for school buses. But as any vigilant citizen will testify, these rules are observed more in the breach. Furiously driven, over-crowded buses, tempos and auto-rickshaws packed with school children of all ages are de rigueur in the nation’s jam-packed, ill-planned cities. Village children on the other hand have to trek long distances to school, and girl children in particular are vulnerable to kidnapping and assault en route by anti-social elements who have little fear of punishment in under-policed rural outbacks.

Nor do threats and dangers subside once children navigate their way into ill-equipped schools. Although the Union HRD ministry admits to an average countrywide teacher-pupil ratio of 1:41 (the highest in the world), according to World Bank data the ratio is 1:63. Moreover as the PROBE (Public Report on Basic Education) 1999 reported, 20 percent of government schools in the Hindi belt states (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh), which host over half the population of India don’t have proper buildings; 20 percent are single-teacher institutions; 58 percent don’t provide drinking water to children and 70 percent are bereft of toilets.

Since then, following the introduction of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All) and free mid-day meal programmes by the Central and state governments, according to ASER (Annual Survey of Education Report), 2005 the situation vis-a-vis the availability of drinking water and toilets has improved substantially, although not radically. However ASER 2005 discloses that very little learning takes place in the nation’s classrooms. According to the report which surveyed 485 of India’s 603 districts, almost 50 percent of rural students in class VII haven’t attained class II level proficiency in comprehension, writing and maths in their native language (see EW cover story March 2006).

Box 2

UP’s kidnapping industry

In Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous (166 million) state, crimes against children have acquired industry status. All the state’s notorious caste gangs with private armies which routinely collect ‘protection money’ enjoy political protection and often representation, in the state’s legislative assembly.

According to data from the National Crimes Record Bureau, 1,304 children were murdered in 2004, a 7.5 percent increase over 2003. With 511 cases, UP topped the list, accounting for 39.2 child murders in 2004. A total of 3,196 cases of kidnapping and abduction of children were reported during the year. Once again, UP topped the list with 735 or 23 percent of registered cases of child kidnapping. According to NGO professionals, these kidnap numbers are a gross underestimate as police stations routinely decline to register kidnapping complaints.

Former director general of police K.L. Gupta admits that the police don’t pay much attention to “missing persons” complaints as they don’t fall under the category of serious crimes. “There is such a backlog of serious crimes that no one has the time to pay attention to miscellaneous crimes,” he says.

Uttar Pradesh’s kidnapping industry has had other repercussions as well. In the state’s Jalaun district (pop. 1.45 million) which hosts some of the state’s most notorious gangs and private armies, schools have remained shut for over a decade. While 2,400 teachers and support staff draw their pay, none of the district’s 1,229 primary schools are operational. Ditto the 408 high schools which employ 1,200 teachers. The schools remain closed because teachers who take classes are likely to be kidnapped and held for ransom. Deputy basic education officer Brijnanadan Shukla says seven teachers, including a school principal were kidnapped a decade ago. “Their families had to pay heavy ransom for their release. Since then no teacher attends school. Since we can’t ensure their safety, we can’t force them either,” says Shukla.

Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)

Yet perhaps the most unforgivable act of omission of Indian educationists and school managements is that they haven’t yet discerned the linkage between provision of separate toilets for girl children and women’s literacy and education. If currently a mere 47.8 percent of Indian women countrywide are literate as against 73 percent of men, failure and neglect to make this elementary provision is a major cause. According to an insightful report in the Times of India (Bangalore edition, August 14), in Karnataka, much hyped as the most IT-savvy state in the country, of the 43,414 government primary schools statewide, 13,440 (32 percent) don’t have toilets at all and 29,326 don’t provide separate toilet facilities for girl children. Moreover even in the state’s 3,089 government high schools, 874 don’t have toilets at all and 1,976 (64 percent) don’t provide separate toilets for girl children. This foolish neglect not only prompts girl children to drop out of school, but also poses the grave danger of sexual assault and molestation to those who persist with their education.

However ‘soft dangers’ such as deprivation of education and related enablements apart, within an under-policed society in which there is little fear of retribution for criminal acts in general, liberalised India with its massive population of 415 million children has metamorphosed into a safe haven for child traffickers and paedophiles. “Trafficking in human beings and prostitution is no longer a social reform issue. It is the third largest business of organised crime after the illegal arms and narcotics trades, with children from developing third world countries being the most vulnerable. Children in India have to perpetually combat dangers such as malnutrition, poor schooling, unemployment as well as archaic religious and social customs which make them vulnerable to the lures of flourishing merchants in the prostitution, drugs, pornography and related industries. We have to force a change of government policies which encourage shopping malls and five-star hotels instead of schools and healthcare institutions,” says Preeti Patkar, founder trustee of Prerana (estb.1974) a Mumbai-based voluntary organisation which rescues and rehabilitates adolescents abducted by traffickers and trapped in the flesh trade. Supported by the Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations, Prerana runs 42 self-sustaining centres across India and also offers education fellowships and scholarship programmes for youth.

The ubiquity of child exploitation and sexual abuse in India is endorsed by Vidya Reddy, executive director of Chennai’s Tulir Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Abuse (estb. 2004). “India is definitely among the ten most dangerous countries for children. Millions of them work as domestic servants and helpers in restaurants to support themselves and their families. As such they are very vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. A recent study conducted by Tulir among 2,211 class XI students in 24 municipal corporation schools in Chennai indicated that 48 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls were sexually abused by people known to them. Another study conducted in West Bengal by Save the Children, UK together with Tulir which surveyed a sample of 500 children employed as domestic servants revealed that their average working day was 15 hours, that 68 percent were subjected to physical abuse, 86 percent were emotionally bruised and one-fifth had been sexually assaulted. There’s no doubt that India offers a very dangerous environment for children,” says Reddy, an alumna of Madras and St. Louis (USA) universities.

Another hard or violent crime against children, whose incidence is rising, is kidnapping for ransom. In the notorious badlands of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh in particular, kidnapping has assumed the status of an industry. Following the liberalisation and deregulation of the Indian economy in 1991, the middle class — the major, if not sole beneficiary of economic liberalisation — has expanded exponentially. But with rural India and the urban under-class almost untouched by the favourable winds of liberalisation and the gap between the newly affluent middle class and the poor majority widening, children of the relatively rich have become soft targets of kidnappers across the country.

In Lucknow, the unruly capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (166 million), two cases of “missing persons” are registered every day. Since the commencement of the current calendar year, 513 people have gone missing — half of them children. G. K. Goswami, the city’s senior superinten-dent of police admits that the word “kidnapping” is abhorrent to the force, and that all reported kidnapping cases are initially registered under the low priority “missing persons” category. “It’s true that a kidnapping report is initially registered as a missing person’s report. Its status is upgraded to a kidnapping case only when we have hard evidence of this crime. However following a rise in kidnapping complaints, I have sent a circular to all police stations to pay greater attention to kidnapping complaints and my office constantly monitors such cases,” says Goswami.

Although children of the new rich are prime targets of kidnapper-extortionist gangs which are multiplying with alarming rapidity, it’s not as though the children of the poor are safe. Male children are routinely abducted by kidnappers to work as bonded labour in private coal and copper mines or on farmland. Despite bonded labour having been abolished decades ago, newspapers and television channels routinely report dramatic “police raids” and rescue of male children often chained to their workplaces in bonded labour factories and sweatshops.

Likewise, trafficking in girl children of the poor is one of the most lucrative businesses in India, carried on with the open connivance of the police and law enforcement authorities. It’s common knowledge that tens of thousands of girl children are sold or kidnapped in Nepal, Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh to supply the cramped brothels of Mumbai and other metros. And recent scandals in Kashmir and Kerala have confirmed that top politicians and police officers are among the most enthusiastic clients of child kidnappers running prostitution rings. Occasionally horror stories of rescued girls are splashed in the media. But follow-up reports of prosecution and convictions are rare.

Massive official and societal indifference to the welfare and well-being of the world’s largest child population, which if adequately nurtured and educated could transform India into the workshop of the world in the latter half of the 21st century, is reflected not only in the nutrition (see box p.26), education, healthcare and security deprivations of India’s children, but also in the obstinate persistence of widespread child labour. More than half a century ago when it was promulgated, the Constitution of free India recommended free and compulsory education for all children up to age 14. Despite this constitutional mandate, child labour is ubiquitous in 21st century India. Although Union government statistics admit to 11 million working children (under 14 years of age) countrywide, voluntary sector estimates indicate that between 60 and 115 million children are sweating it out in inhuman conditions in the nation’s fields, factories, sweatshops and domestic households for pitiful, if any, wages. 

Box 3

Fagin’s shadow

peculiar danger stalking Indian children, overlooked by respondents to the Reuters AlertNet poll is that of being forced into beggary. According to Maharashtra government statistics, begging is a very lucrative ‘business’ in Mumbai (pop. 14 million) — India’s commercial capital. On July 14, minister of state for social justice Dharmaraobaba Atram informed the state’s legislative assembly that the number of beggars in the city has risen from 20,000 in 1963 to over 600,000 and that their annual earnings aggregate Rs.180 crore.

Although social workers in the field say this figure is difficult to verify, they confirm that the overwhelming majority of beggars in the city are children forced to solicit alms by organised gangs. “There are many categories of beggars in Mumbai, but most of them are children, coerced into begging,” says Dr. Chandrakant Puri, former professor of social sciences at SNDT University, Mumbai and currently director, distance education, at this all-women’s varsity.

A 2004 survey conducted by Mumbai-based Social Development Centre (est.1998) with the help of Dr. Puri, indicates that children in the age group of six-12 often earn Rs.200- 300 per day. Comments Vijay Karande, secretary, Social Development Centre: “Most of the child beggars are provided food and their earnings are pocketed by mafia gangs at the end of the day. If the children short-change their runners, they are severely beaten.”

Meanwhile under a pilot scheme the Social Development Centre has adopted 20 beggar boys and girls in the five-11 age group and lodged them in Dreamz, its child rehabilitation home in sub-urban Mumbai. The children study in nearby municipal schools and are provided milk and mid-day meals. Moreover their families have been provided interest-free soft loans of Rs.5,000-10,000 to start small retail shops.

According to Karande if there is political will, beggary, especially by children, can be curbed by the law enforcing agencies. “The first step the state government should take is to shift child beggars in Mumbai to the other ten government remand homes statewide. Second, the bail amount for those arrested under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 should be raised from the current Rs.100 to Rs.2,000. And thirdly, government should create a central database so that habitual beggars can be detained for up to ten years under the Act,” he says.

According to Census 2001 statistics there were 627,688 beggars and vagrants in India in 2001, a statistic which is dismissed as a gross fiction by voluntary sector professionals. In reply to a starred question asked in Parliament in New Delhi on August 25, 2005, Union minister of social justice and welfare, Meira Kumar replied: “No reliable estimate about the number of beggars in the country is available with government of India.” On preventive measures by the Centre, she said that beggary, including begging by children is prohibited by legislation of the state governments and Union territory administrations. Thus, there is no Central legislation ‘regulating’ beggary.

Michael Gonsalves (Pune)

Recently, following numerous reports of government officials themselves routinely employing pre-teen children as domestic help, the Union government has widened the ambit of the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986 to proscribe employment of children as domestic servants, or in food stalls, teashops, restaurants, hotels, spas and other recreational centres.

“The Child Labour Act, 1986 has hardly been implemented at all for the past 20 years, and there’s a strong possibility that the amendments banning employment of children in domestic households, hotels and teashops will also prove ineffective. Corrupt child welfare officials and inspectors of government will fudge the age of children and continue to submit customised reports. The solution for the eradication of child labour is for village panchayats, voluntary sector organisations and RWAs (Rural Workers Associations) to become persistent pressure groups for better quality schools providing real learning, so that parents and children find school a better option than sending children to work,” says Kailash Satyarthi promoter-director of the Delhi-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan (‘Save the Childhood Movement’), which has campaigned actively to expand the ambit of the Child Labour Act to ban employment of children in households, hotels and restaurants.

Within a society and nation in which it is customary to sweep uncomfortable truths and realities under the carpet, this is a time for serious introspection. Although the politically correct cliché that children are a nation’s wealth is routinely mouthed in education workshops and seminars, the hard reality as the Reuters AlertNet poll highlights, is that by way of thousands of small acts of omission and commission, post-independence India’s central planners and the establishment in general, have unwittingly fashioned a very dangerous, countrywide child-hostile environment.

There needs to be greater awareness that given love, care and nurturance India’s 415 million children have the potential to transform this nation into the workshop and service providers of the world. If denied, they have also the capability to transform into an anarchic and destructive force. The clock is ticking.


With Autar Nehru (Delhi); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai); Bharati Thakore (Mumbai) & Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)

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