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November 20: a day to reflect on India's great paradox

The country boasts of development yet can't take care of its children

November 20: a day to reflect on India's great paradox

Children follow a truck fumigating against dengue-bearing mosquitoes in Siliguri (AFP photo/Diptendu Dutta)

Ivan Fernandes, Hyderabad

November 20, 2013

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Just the other day, I saw a woman beggar on a busy city pavement exhibiting a shivering child with a swollen head and bandaged foot for money. People, including myself, fumbled in our pockets for some loose change, tossed it into her bowl and walked by.

After a few paces I heard a commotion and turned around to see a foreign tourist pleading with a passerby. “This child needs immediate medical attention, not your coins. You seem an educated person. Do something,” she pleaded, catching the man by the hand. Before the man or any of us could react, the beggar woman with her bowl and child in hand fled.

No one can pass through an Indian village or city without seeing how dangerous a place India is for children. There are child beggars, urchins rummaging through garbage or at work, those with distended bellies, unschooled, half-naked, sick and maimed. So common is such a sight that there are many like me who have forgotten to even cringe at their plight.

More recently a lot has been said about India’s demographic dividend, how India is a young nation, how children and youth are its wealth, as one-third of the 1.2 billion people are below 14 years of age and a little more than half of the country under 25 years.

But as we celebrate the UN Universal Children’s Day on November 20, it may be time to sift through the propaganda and see the reality.

India’s number of children is staggering. Estimates show that there are 440 million children in India. This is more than the entire population of the North American continent. Every year about 27 million children are born in India. This is about four million more than the population of Australia.

India can boast of a great many achievements in enacting laws that focus on a child’s welfare by giving them the best possible rights, privileges and protection. Food and education, for example, are fundamental rights of children in India.

Yet of the 27 million born every year, nearly two million of them do not live to the age of five, having died from avertable diseases like diarrhea, malaria, typhoid, pneumonia and measles.

A recent UNICEF report stated that 43 percent of children below five years of age were underweight and 48 percent were stunted due to malnutrition. Close to 80 percent of the children less than three years old have anemia.

While a majority of children are enrolled in school, about half do not attend regularly because they have to work and earn money for their families.

Official figures put the number of child workers in India at 12 million but many NGOs reckon that figure to be five times more. Although there are laws against employing those below 14 years, textile and matchstick factories, roadside eateries and homes continue to employ children.

Moreover, the Indian government in conjunction with UNICEF and Save the Children published a research study in 2007 that estimated two-thirds of children were physically abused with the majority beaten in school, and over half having to work seven days a week. About 50 percent of the children face some kind of emotional or sexual abuse, and over 20 percent of them are severely abused.

Leave aside the universal aspiration for the wellbeing of our children or the humanitarian concern for so many lives horrendously affected; there remains this colossal waste of talent for humankind. With every fifth child on the planet being Indian, India and the world could have had many more Einsteins, Tagores and Picassos. But this is not the case because children are not allowed to reach their potential.

This remains the great Indian paradox that while India can boast of a great growth story, achievements in science and technology, medical facilities, food production, GDP, economics and commerce, egalitarian laws and robust democracy, it is unable to care for its children.

Even after six decades of independence and despite various initiatives, on the legal as well as policy and program levels, the condition of children remains a cause of concern in the country, wrote T.C.A. Anant, secretary to the Indian statistics and program implementation ministry.

“The statistics emanating from various censuses, surveys and administrative records underlines this,” he said in a government report, pointing out that “we have miles to go to ensure a bright future for the children in all spheres of their life.”

It is not by chance then that world leaders in 2000 had children in mind when outlining the Millennium Development Goals that range from halving poverty to curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015. Though the objectives are for all, six of the eight goals relate directly to children.

Ivan Fernandes is a commentator based in Hyderabad

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