By Prahlad Singh Shekhawat

India has the largest number of working and malnourished children in the world and one of the highest rates of infant mortality. There are also serious issues of child marriages, female  foeticide and neglect of the girl child. The increasing number of street children in the cities is a cause of concern. Sexual abuse and trafficking is a major issue .What is equally appalling is the apathy, lack of care and  awareness in administration and society. In these times of abundant wealth in the country, the extreme deprivation of so many of our children is the greatest cause for severely diminishing India’s moral power and may well have become the biggest moral scandal today India is the third largest producer of food in the world and has the third largest defense budget after USA and China. We have the second fastest rate of  economic growth and some of the richest men in the world .Yet India has about fifty percent of the worlds hungry people (about 380 million) and the worst affected are children. According to World Food Program nearly half of our children suffer from severe or moderate  malnourishment or  suffer from stunting, Child malnutrition  not only accounts for 22 percent of the country’s disease burden  but also for half of the 2.3 million child deaths annually. 67 out of 1000 thousand children die before the age of five. In Rajasthan it is calculated that girls under 20 account for most of the deaths. There are a large number of cases of foeticide of female foetus which is a notoriously unique Indian phenomenon. Despite having a national policy for compulsory primary education, only 50% of children have access to proper education.

It is estimated that 60 to 115 million of our children are doing child labor, the largest number in the world, many of them in appalling conditions. No exact current figures are available as the government does not regularly collect relevant data about child labor and many other issues related to child deprivation thereby displaying its indifference. We have to rely on data generated by international agencies which . Without proper data there can be no proper monitoring and evaluation and the progress achieved cannot be measured. One values what one measures and measures what one values and one cannot manage what is not measured.

It is in this context that the significance of  children’s rights emerges. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 ,the most widely ratified document of this kind was also ratified by India in 1992. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.. The Convention protects children’s rights by obliging countries that have ratified the convention to take every step  to ensure health care; quality education; and legal, civil and social services to all children  and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child.

Since the convention was ratified not much progress has taken place apart from a draft plan of action and the setting up of the National Commission of Children’s Rights headed by the noted social worker Dr Shantha Sinha this year (which is laudable). A group headed by justice Krishna Iyer  was asked by UNICEF to prepare a draft bill which was presented to the  prime minister, but no legislation was brought forward .Even without a separate legislation an international treaty or convention signed by the Indian government is enforceable and is part of the constitution as long as it does not conflict with the fundamental rights.

As part of the obligation of the Indian and state governments the grass roots groups, civil society and intelligentsia are demanding that all necessary steps be taken urgently to ensure children’s rights .The Children’s Rights Forum, coordinated by the Alternative Development Centre,Jaipur, which is a network of concerned grassroots and civil society groups and individuals have put forward the following charter of demands to the governments:1 Integrate different departments in the government concerned with Children’s issues into one department of Child Development with one secretary and one minister taking responsibility.2 Strengthen and expand  ICDS and make it a top priority program. Improve its monitoring and improve conditions of anganwadi workers. 3 Better enforcement of Child labor laws along with the rehabilitation, provision of nonformal and bridge education and economic support to the parents through employment guarantee and fair wages. 4 Develop measures and collect relevant data to monitor and evaluate conditions of education, health, nutrition and secure environment for children and the impact of various programs.5The government should come out with a annual report on the concrete steps taken to fulfill the rights of children and the impact of these steps. 6 Spend at least 9 percent of the gross domestic product  on education and health as promised in the National Common Minimum Program.

We all individuals,society and government  need to adopt  the  moral principle that the first claim on all resources is of vulnerable children and then their mothers in the same way that we  instinctively follow this human  ethic within our families . It is time to reaffirm Gandhi ji’s mool mantra: think of the interest of the weakest when taking any decision or laying down any policy.

There are four kinds of powers a nation aspires for to gain influence and respect in the world .1Military power  2 Economic power 3 Soft  power which relates to culture and ideas.4 Moral power which Gandhi ji  taught us is the greatest power. India’s  economic and military power is rising  at a very fast rate and yet its moral power is diminishing at an equally fast rate precisely because of the horrifying deprivation of so many of our children which has given India the  dubious distinction of being  a world leader in the area of neglect of children.

It is not  simply an issue of the need for mobilizing economic and other resources but mainly the need to mobilize shame. A deprived child not only undergoes physical and mental suffering but also a huge loss of dignity, and self esteem (which casts a shadow on her entire life) thereby and by the same token the uncaring society and government suffers an equal  loss of  compassion and humanity. Here is a case for developing  a national index of moral power as well as an index for dignity and compassion instead of only measures like rates of economic growth, GNP and Sunsex  as an indicator of  development and progress.

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