Is India a safe place for children? When a recent poll (by Reuter NetAlert) named India the sixth most dangerous country in the world for children, a daily newspaper's editorial declared it was too much. Is India more dangerous for children than war-torn regions like Afghanistan and Chechnya (also in the list)? Doesn't the word `dangerous' evoke images of war, rape, kidnapping and landmines, something the newspaper felt is "not descriptive of the landscape of every day India".
Sadly, such rumblings of patriotic indignation and verbal quibbling evade the main question, which is: Is India actually a dangerous place for children? Rather than get caught in comparisons, let's take a closer look at just what are the risks children live with in this country.
Take the recent story of Prince, a boy of four who fell into a 60-feet deep pit while playing with his friends. People all over the country prayed for the child, who was finally rescued by army men. The boy's composure during the 48-hour ordeal was the talk of the town.
Today, nobody wants to know what happened to the contractor who dug the 60-feet pit; or whether the authorities plan to fix responsibility for this disaster. Was the pit less dangerous than a landmine? Can we ensure it will not happen again?
Although no ready data is available, it is not easy to imagine how unsafe even cities like Delhi are for children, especially poor children. In Jehangirpuri, a slum-dominated area in Delhi, local social workers report frequent cases of infants falling into open sewers and dying... cases that never make it to the dailies. However, the dailies are full of reports of children dying in road accidents; especially when they are traveling to school or returning from school.
News of brutality against children comes from all states. Recently, a boy, 14, was beaten to death by his schoolteacher in Gujarat. In 2006, a child was found in shackles in a boarding-school; several children were kidnapped for ransom or indoctrination (Jammu and Kashmir and Bihar) while on the way to school; and many children committed suicide due to examination pressure - all in different parts of India. These were among the privileged children in India - at least they were attending school!
We pride ourselves for our love of children, but sentimentality is not the same thing as love. Do we listen to what children need, and try to provide it - or do we simply pull them into the violent world we have created, letting them be traumatized and brutalized? We need to remind ourselves that danger is danger whether it is threat to life due to guns and bombs, or due to lack of food, water, shelter, clothing, and adequate care.
Children cannot be safe and secure if their basic needs are not fulfilled. Are we providing children with this basic `human security' - which is their birthright? All the available data suggests otherwise. Around 30 per cent babies in India are born with low birth-weight; and 47 per cent children under three are underweight. Child malnutrition affects physical and cognitive growth, and is linked to increased mortality. Every year, over 1.2 million Indian children under five die of malnutrition.
Over 75 per cent of pre-school children suffer from iron deficiency. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, its prevalence has fallen to 55 per cent, and in China it is only 8 per cent. Some 51 million children suffer from iodine deficiency in India, usually leading to mild or severe brain damage. Most growth retardation caused by malnutrition occurs by the age of two, and is irreversible.
Under-nutrition rates in South Asia, including especially India, are nearly double those in sub-Saharan Africa. Half the world's undernourished children live in South Asia (State of the World's Children, UNICEF, 2006). One contributory factor is that women in South Asia tend to have lower status and less decision-making power than women in sub-Saharan Africa, thus limiting their ability to access resources for their own and their children's health and nutrition.
Caste, class and gender heighten inequalities in India. The media rarely focuses on children other than that of the elite. Even amongst the elite classes, there is a high demand for the male child; families are patriarchal and authoritarian; and domestic violence and child abuse are common in many homes. Choice, creativity and independent thinking among children are discouraged and frowned upon.
India is also home to one of the highest population of child laborers. Toddlers help with gathering fuel and firewood, fetching and carrying. Little ones take care of infant siblings. Millions of children work for an income in formal and informal sectors - including hazardous occupations like manufacture of firecrackers.
Child marriage is still common, with little regard to readiness for sex, knowledge of contraception or physical and emotional fitness for parenthood. Today, as HIV/AIDS is on the rise, children are severely affected both as direct and indirect victims.
So far, the examples/data quoted belong to `better-off' India. We have not enquired into the state of children in regions where conflicts rage, such as Kashmir, the North-East, or Gujarat (in the 2002 riots). We have not asked about farmers' children in Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh whose fathers - unable to repay debts - have committed suicide. We have still to ask about the millions of `differently-abled' children who are challenged visually, orthopedically, or mentally etc. Nor have we attended, yet, to the conditions of child beggars, drug addicts, street children or children who are victims of human trafficking.
Female infanticide still exists in India - reported from states as far apart as Rajasthan, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Sex-selective abortion or `female feticide's widespread - threatening the existence of girl children even before they are born.
It is not that Indian policymakers or the media are totally unaware of the plight of India's children. Rather we would prefer not to think too much about it, and certainly not have it in the glare of the public eye. The first hurdle to cross is simply this: to acknowledge that ours is actually a highly unsafe society as far as children are concerned. It was refreshing to find Renuka Chowdhury, Minister of State for Women and Child Development, state at a conference in May 2006 that despite high economic growth performance, India still has a large number of children still suffering from under-nutrition.
But mere lip service is not enough. The Reuter AlertNet poll, should be taken as a red signal: literally, an alert: a call for introspection, rethinking and appropriate action.