Wednesday, 27 July 2016

My Name is Today. Tomorrow is Too Late - Gabriel Mistral

A note from a dear friend and senior colleague who is leaving the country ended with this quote from Gabriel Mistral on children. It set me thinking and finally got me back to the writing desk after a really long gap. I started this blog with a lot of enthusiasm to write about my work and experiences, joys and frustrations of a child rights worker in the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh. But seems my creative juices only flow with deep anguish. My previous posts (a princely number of 3) have largely dealt with the anguish of seeing women and girls being treated as the second sex or with the caste discrimination so rampant in many parts of the country that seems so normalised for people. In all those reflections, I tried to think about what as an individual can we do to make a change even as the larger policy and politics play out.

Today, I find myself again in deep despair. I came to Delhi  two years ago, into a new role in my job with stars in my eyes. In my interview I said I want to influence policies, be at the cutting edge of the child rights agenda in the country. Bring lasting changes in the lives of children blah blah blah. In the last eight months, I have seen before my eyes two laws on children unfolding and getting ratification that almost make me think this is one long nightmare. Maybe I will wake up and still be in Lucknow, eating Tunday, attending Urdu fests, Ganjing and happily dealing with nuts and bolts issues of how to make communities resilient in dealing with child protection and address issues of gender and caste. It was really much easier to talk to communities that the audience that is probably reading this post likes to call 'backward, uneducated, poor....". I distinctly remember a conversation with a child protection commmittee in Sonebhadra district of Eastern UP where the members understood why we were opposed to trying children as adults. They just got that children taking to crime was a failure of the family and community at large and does not have to be criminalised. There was one member who had taken it upon himself to make surprise checks at home based carpet looms to make sure children were not working there - even after school hours as they needed time to rest and play and just be children.

So I thought, well if they get it in a remote hamlet tucked away between left wing extremist areas and the badlands of UP, surely in New Delhi it will be a cakewalk to have such discussions and get people to see reason. I guess that is precisely when my nightmare turned out not be a nightmare after all. The politics of law making in our country and the complete apathy towards a genuine concern for children by our policy makers, have hit me in the gut - physically hurting me. I have come close to just giving up this line of work and finding an alternate profession. But then I realise quickly that I am really not good at anything else. So here I am after two years, a major part of which was spent fighting against the new Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) and some part of it against the amendment to the Child Labour Act (CLPRA). Both these legislations were cleared by Parliament in the last eight months without any change of stand on the key concerns highlighted by many individuals and organisations.

So then I am forced to introspect. What really is happening here? What are we not getting as child rights workers? Are we missing a piece of the puzzle that is only visible to policy makers?

On the one hand we justify poverty as an excuse for children working and on the other hand when poverty forces these same working children into the fringes of urban centres where they come in contact with gangs, drugs and crime, we want to punish them severely and try them as adults? If poverty is forcing children to work, should the State not take a hard look at the targeting and delivery of its much touted social protection schemes? Am I the only fool that does not get how in 2016, with the country posturing world over for NSG membership, we can justify continuation of child labour in any form citing poverty as a reason? And in the same breath condemn children who maybe take this agency or responsibility of work thrust on them like they are adults and behave like adults. So then you have the whole rigmarole of child like and adult like mindset in committing a crime. If it is so bad in the eyes of the law to be adult like, then why in the eyes of another law is it being pushed as a boon to children to be able to assume adult responsibilities to reduce family poverty?

How can the same Government churn out two laws with so much differences in the age categories. The JJA makes a distinction between all other children and children in the age group of 16-18. For some reason, best known to the powers that be and unknown to most of the scientific research in the field, it seems that is a period where magically a child becomes 'adult like'. Then why does the CLPRA make a distinction of upto 14 and 14 and above? Why does the National Policy on Children define children as anyone below 18? Who are these adolescents as per the CLPRA? International definitions for adolescence based on biological development is the age group of 10-19. How does a law chose to ignore something as factual as biology and create a completely different category for adolescents that find no reflection in another legislation or policy of the Government? 

And amidst all this posturing, what is really the investment in children?  According to the 264th Report of Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development, the percentage share of children’s budget within the Union Budget has been reduced from 4.76% in 2012-13 to 4.64% in 2013-14. The report further highlights that of all sectors, the budget for child protection has been the lowest and in 2015-16, it is only 0.04% of the total union budget. This covers the juvenile justice system, child labour and provisions for orphan and street children. So we make new laws and policies and expect magic to happen? Without any political will in investing in the systems needed to make the laws a reality for children? 

Clearly it cannot only be the responsibility of the State. And I expected this united, concerted child rights movement that I could be a part of at the National level, that I have always admired from the sidelines in the last 13 years of my 15 year career. People that inspired with their work and commitment. And I realise never has a movement faced such an existential crisis as now in the face of these incessant legislative regressions. Those inspiring leaders - many of them chose to keep silent through this storm. Ofcourse many did not - they fought like tigers and at the forefront. But many did not. Curiously absent from meetings, petitions, press conferences and statements. Curiously present in many government platforms though at the same time. It forces me to question basic principles of civil society operations in child rights? Is there a decline of the ideological base that led to the semblance of a movement? In the name of public private partnership, are eroding the free thinking space for civil society? If someone calls himself or herself a child rights activist, how can that person not speak up when such sweeping changes are taking place in the landscape of their work? Child rights and human rights are not divisible. That was the first lesson I learnt. The child is the same. Is that so difficult to perceive? 

Babloo lives in a village in a rural part of the country. He helps his father in the family's small landholding. At some point, Babloo was enrolled in the primary school in the village. He was quite excited about learning. But school turned out to be not what they showed in the PSAs in Doordarshan that Babloo saw in the Panchayat house sometimes. The teachers were not interested in teaching, the other boys shunned him for being a lower caste and no one really questioned his absence for days when the work on the farm was a bit heavier and he skipped school. Babloo continued to do this cat and mouse game between the school and the farm. Usually too tired to play or study after attending a few hours of school and then helping is father in the farm, Babloo soon started slipping in learning in school. By the time he was 14 and had somehow managed to complete primary school, he had no more interest left in studying. The same year drought struck the village and Babloo's father took a massive loss. Babloo joined a stream of 'adolescents' headed to the city for work and started working in a biscuit factory. The work hours were long and conditions poor. But Babloo was making some money and staying with other boys from his village in a slum in the city. With a little extra money that he kept for himself after sending the rest to his family in the village, Babloo started to buy some things for himself - a pair of sunglasses, jeans. One say some boys showed Babloo how to smoke. It progressed to other kinds of substances. Soon before he knew it and unsupervised without the care and protection of his family, Babloo was an addict. The earning from the factory was now not enough to support his addiction and his family. Babloo started minor thefts with the neighborhood gangs. It all seemed so easy with the drugs rather than the brains talking in his 15 year old head. By the time he turned 16, Babloo was a full blown addict and then one day in a fit of withdrawal and desperate need of money for his cocaine, he accidentally kills a man he was trying to rob. Babloo now is going to be tried as an adult for committing this 'heinous' offence. 

Is it really so difficult to see the links? Hands on your hearts. Really? 

So where really as a Nation do we put children as a policy, economic and moral priority? Do I really need to answer the question? Mistral's quote which is the title of this post is poignant at this moment. Children maybe our future. But for those children, their life is here and now. They will not have a future if we do not act in the present. 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

I am Jyoti Singh Pandey

I was born in this country, the world's most populous democracy. I studied textbooks where I read about our constitution and proudly recited the lines "WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

Foolishly, I assumed I was also a citizen of this Nation. more than three decades later, I see this assumption crumbling down around me like never before.

Let us face it. Even the most progressive countries of this world discriminated against women and maybe they are still not perfect. But they are atleast on a trajectory that is progressive. In my nation, that trajectory seems to be following an inverse path.

How else do I explain the increased violence against women? And violence of the worst kind as the whole world witnessed in the recent brutal rape of the woman on a moving bus in Delhi. This young woman was training to be a physiotherapist, from a regular middle class family with aspirations for their children, she liked doing things I like to do too. Like watch a movie on a winter evening with a friend. And yet that journey ended in a horrific ordeal, the details of which make me want to vomit everytime I think about it. I think why this incident captured the imagination of a nation where a woman is raped every 22 minutes, is because most of us felt this could have been me. Infact this is me.

A lot of legitimate issues have been highlighted by this case. The need for judicial and police reform, the need for public safety measures, the need for policies and laws that will not make reporting or trying a case of abuse or violence against women so difficult. Helplines, women police forces, CCTV cameras....all important no doubt, but simply not enough.

Because the fact is that as a society we have failed our women not only in recent times but from ages. The heritage and past that our friends in the RSS are so proud of, let us examine that a little closely. And since I am familiar with Hinduism, let me stick to that. So we worship a God and contest elections in the name of the same God who threw out his pregnant wife because some random fellow accused her of adultery. And we venerate another set of god like characters who decided it was ok to gamble their wife in a game of poker and then fight a war that killed thousands to uphold the honour of that same wife. What warped sense of dignity is this exactly? Also the same heritage that burnt wives at the pyres of their husbands and then made them goddesses in some convoluted sense of devotion. The same tradition that makes women fast and pray for husbands, brothers, sons who then go on to beat, rape, abuse and illtreat them.

In case you are lifting your eyebrows at that last comment, please go over the statistics. 80% of the rape cases reported have been committed by people who were known to the victims - either friends, family or neighbours.

So there, change and make laws as you will. Achieve the UN standards of policing numbers. Establish a thousand fast track courts. Chemically castrate and hang the accused. But the fact remains, that till you are willing to share this country with 50% of its rightful citizens, nothing will change. And Jyoti Singh Pandeys will continue to be born, live and then be brutally raped and killed. Because the odds were always against her. She was lucky she survived the odds of being a female foetus that was not snuffed out, the odds of being the elder sibling who had to take care of household work while her brothers went to school, of the odds of not being able to continue to study beyond primary or secondary levels. But she could not in the end beat the odds of being a women in a nation that is no country for women.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Lesser Children, 5th August, 2012

After my first post, I had wanted to follow up with a happy post. Something positive and shining. And I promise it will come because everyday I meet people who give me hope. But today's post is again triggered by a recent visit to a village in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and a news story on the status of mid-day meal schemes in some of our states.

For the benefit of my friends outside India, the flagship program on universalization of primary education in the country has a critical component on providing hot cooked mid-day meals to all the students in govenment schools. It was meant to be the strategy to attract children of poorer families for whom sending a child to school was viewed as the opportunity cost lost in terms of another hand to earn a few extra rupees for a meal. Over the course of the last decade, this and several other strategies has ensured very high rates of enrolment at the primary level. A critical success. Let us leave aside the debate on quality, completion and retention for a moment.

Cut to this village then in a remote district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. I like to call this region the final frontier after maybe sub-saharan Africa in the global development scenario. Uttar Pradesh, one state in India, has a population of nearly 200 million, larger than Brazil. Anything that happens here is of consequence not only to India but to the world.

I went to this village as part of my work and we were in one of the hamlets of the village. A remote one, inhabited by a section of the community that has been historically on the margins both economically and socially. I noticed a lot of children hanging around while I was meeting with some of the women in the hamlet. Since school was open, I found it very strange. Further probing revealed a shocking story. Reluctantly a shy but brave mother, between her tears narrated the tale of how her children were made to sit at the back of the classroom, not allowed to ask questions in class, made to clean the school building and when the time for mid-day meal came- were asked to carry their food and go home because the 'other' children did not want to eat with them. The children simply refused to go to school after a point. It became an accepted social norm over the years. Illiteracy was preferable to a pointless education of division. Dignity to humiliation. And who can argue with this mother on this?

I would pull out my daughter from her school at the first hint of any such discrimination, wouldn't I? As a result in this tiny hamlet of about 25 families, more than 30 children just stopped going to school. The older ones dropped out. The younger ones never went. They spend their time working alongside their parents at brick kilns and construction sites. They play, loiter, gaze in honest curiousity at the wall paintings one NGO has done in the hamlet about the right to education and then just get on with whatever they were doing.

I am not ashamed to say that I cried that day. For the pain of these children, for the pain of those parents who knew they were denying their children a chance at a better life but had no option, for the parents of those 'other' children who will never know some new friends and how differences can be so enriching, for those teachers who did not even realize they had done anything wrong, for those NGO workers who decided this was such a tough issue to deal with that we should just focus on easier things. I am glad the situation has changed now in this hamlet due to the work we are doing there but the intention of this blog is not really to discuss the solutions in that detail. Atleast not yet.

Cut to today's newspaper and there is the report of a study on caste biases in mid-day meal in a few states that just proves with evidence this experience I had. To quote, " The monitoring agency, International Institute for Development Studies, said 85% of the school children were found sitting in caste groups", in one of the districts surveyed. In some places upper caste children refused to eat food with dalit children, meals cooked by lower castes were rejected by upper caste children and dalit children were served food from a distance.

Can you imagine being a child from this so called 'upper caste'? Imagine growing up with such deep rooted prejudices when all you should be thinking about is the next game of cricket or hopskotch? Imagine growing up with a feeling of superiority so intense only to be rudely thrust into a cruel competittive world which will find some way of making you feel inadequate in comparison to someone else? What a tragedy! More so than those dalit children, who I think will eventually find their way to school and be more resilient and fearless in facing the challenges of life.

I know caste was not created in a day, its a concept that emerged out of years of social order and it cannot go away in a day. Its not a new issue either. For years now, starting with the architect of our constitution, a dalit child himself, the debate has raged on. Maybe we need a paradigm shift in this debate. Instead of talking about years of subjugation and exploitation, maybe we focus on the contribution of the dalits to our society and our lives. Celebrate the instances of friendship, collaboration and trust. Change the empirical expectations around how society interacts.

How we will do this? And who will do this? I did mention earlier, I do not have the answers. Only questions. And some questions hurt more than others so here goes - what will you do to change this situation?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Half the sky, 19th July 2012

"Nobody minds having what is too good for them." This line by Jane Austen, got me thinking. What is too good? If I am a 16 year old girl in a village in western UP where a Khap Panchayat decides what is good for me, do I still not mind having it? Or I am a girl in Guwahati in Assam and some random man on the street thinks he knows whats good for me, do I still want it? Or I am an unborn female foetus and my parents think its best if I did not come into the world, is that what is good for me?

Members of the National Commission of Women think it appropriate to comment on how girls and women should dress to protect themselves. Its for their own good they say. The police feel that women in Gurgaon should not venture out of their houses after 8 pm. Its for our good it seems. The High Court says that a muslim girl who has attained puberty can be married. Its for her good they claim.

Why is everyone else helping us decide what is good for us suddenly?

We are living in the generation of the internet, social networking, smart phones, tablets, space tourism- even the God Particle is not a myth anymore! India is no far behind in all this growth. We had a woman as the mission leader of the testing of a new missile, we had a woman president (despite her legacy), the first few countries of the world to have a woman leader of the state years back, women CEOs, film makers, teachers, academicians, authors that won Bookers and Pulitzers, Chief Ministers.... the list is endless! And yet we have not evolved enough to understand what is good for us- if you believe the Khaps, the mob molestors, the NCW, the police and the countless others that everyday sit and decide on our 'good'.

I am reading the news today and its full of the story of Rajesh Khanna's funeral. The whole nation watches as despite having two lovely, accomplished, in our eyes empowered daughters, it is his son-in-law who does the last rites. The girls are not good enough? Years back in my small back of the beyond town where I grew up and was looked upon with disdain when I landed in the University of Delhi, my friend had the courage to insist on doing the last rites for her father. It left an impact on me. And despite my 'small town' upbringing, I knew that day that norms could be challenged and could be made better. And yet I see a family with all its wealth, power and influence letting the whole world know that their women are no good.

I am a woman. I laugh, cry, work, sing, dance, drink, love, hate, want, desire, desist - I live. I know what is good for me. I know what is 'too good' for me. And I am teaching my daughter to know what is 'too good' for her and to want without any regrets or any doubts. I am teaching her how to reach out for her half of the sky. Join me if you think you can make a difference to even the life of one girl or woman in your life.