The anxiety of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a recent interview, about the poor people of the country was palpable and moving. When he referred to crucial bills like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill being stalled because of logjam in Parliament, he also underscored their importance in improving the lives of millions of Indians, particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP goes to polls in 2017).
But, nowhere in the almost feature film length interview, is there a mention of children, except once, or of women. The prime minister is not alone in his apathy towards children. His is only a part of the silence that engulfs the politics of India when it comes to children's issues. And by this I don't mean the lip service forced by sporadic media storms over cases of atrocity on children.
There are 44 crore children in India, which means that every third person is below the age of 18 years. If they had voting rights, they would have changed the politics of this country or even the world forever. But, unable to speak for themselves they have relied on politicians, elected representatives and civil society to represent them in Parliament, legislatures and the government.
Today, half of India's children are malnourished and crores of them are out of school. To objectively assess whether politicians are doing justice to the rights and concerns of children, let us look at their record in Parliament, which besides making laws is also a body that makes the government accountable for its acts of omission and commission.
|Union women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi had categorically ruled budgeting for child welfare out.|
As many of us know, members of Parliament can ask the government questions with regard to any issue under the sun, and they do so regularly. From questioning the government's position on banning harmful tobacco products to questions on its inaction on black money.
So, just how many questions are asked on children's concerns and problems? An analysis done by HAQ Centre for child rights unmasks the pathetic reality: In 2015, only five per cent of the questions in the two houses in Parliament were about them.
A total of 27,879 questions were asked in Parliament in 2015, out of which only 1,421 were related to children. Do you reckon that 44 crore children and their issues can be justly covered by just 1,400 questions? I certainly don't think that's possible.
Let's look at what kind of issues were raised through this measly number of questions. The report says that "education continues to be the issue that draws most attention. 652 questions or 46 per cent of the child-related questions were on education.
The issues that have drawn attention are the drop-out rates and out-of-school children, drinking water and toilet facilities in schools. It is as if addressing the education sector alone will address all child rights related issues. It seems that for MPs all other issues take a back seat, including the malaise of the unregulated, and exorbitant private education sector.
Even though according to a government study more than half of India's children face abuse of one kind or another, the report found that only 24 questions spoke of child abuse, child sexual abuse and the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. And a single question pertained to "victim compensation". This is when the government was in the process of setting up a Victim Compensation Fund (which finally happened in October 2015).
A government's commitment towards a policy or sector can be judged by budgetary allocations given to it. That is why the Budget session is perhaps the most important for the country as well as Parliament. For India's children, the amount allotted is just 3.32 per cent of the total Budget, which reveals the sheer hypocrisy of the government towards them. In terms of questions on children during the Budget session, the Parliament's performance is equally appalling.
According to the HAQ report, a total number of 12,777 questions were raised during the Budget session in 2015 of which only 749 were child-focused (just 5.86 per cent) of which 318 questions were in Rajya Sabha and 432 questions in Lok Sabha.
However, since 2003 when the first such analysis of child-focused questions was done, the HAQ study in 2015, reported a miniscule increase of two per cent in children's issues. Here, it must be mentioned that only one question was raised on the subject of mental disability among children in the entire year.
Government must implement a child-friendly budget
A child-friendly budget is defined by UNICEF as one that "reflects the realisation of children's rights. Specifically, national budgets that adequately address children's issues, such as poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy or child protection can be considered to be equitable child-friendly budgets. The goal of these children's budgets is the prioritisation of children and other socially vulnerable groups in the public expenditure system."
It sounds practical and even noble then to have an analysis of what India spends to improve the lives of its 44 crore children. One would expect the government to agree to this exercise but here too, we see a complete stonewalling by the minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi.
In a reply to BJP's Poonam Mahajan, Gandhi categorically ruled budgeting for child welfare out. Mahajan, an MP from Mumbai, asked the women and child development minister, "whether the government proposes to establish a child budgeting cell in Central ministries/departments and state governments with the main purpose of sensitising and institutionalising child-related concerns in the country, and if so, the details thereof". To which the response of Gandhi was, "No, madam. There is no such proposal." No reasons were given for the government's stand.
While the refocusing of Parliament's concerns on children's issues might take a long time, the government can take action on its own, and implement actions like child-focused budgeting. That itself will be a huge step towards ensuring that the vast majority of India's children no longer remain malnourished, unprotected, and their potential unrealised.