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.