Today is Children’s Day. For India to have a future, our children deserve a present that is safer, healthier and more empowering. But we Indians seem to have a peculiar gift of transforming solemn and celebratory occasions into sham rituals devoid of any real substance. This Children’s Day let’s focus on fundamental rights of our children and their future instead of long speeches.
While travelling 12,000 kilometres across India on the Bharat Yatra against child sexual abuse and trafficking, i noticed two things: Indian children are bubbling and bursting with dreams and aspirations. But we are failing them politically, economically, socially and legally. India doesn’t have a future if we imperil the present of our children.
I have been fighting for children for almost 40 years now. There have been times when apathy, indifference and hostility have depressed me. But i have never lost hope in the power, faith and resolve of ordinary people to create a better future. We often fail as a society, but we also offer tantalising glimpses of our ability to nurture greatness against all odds.
Look at the inspiring story of BR Ambedkar. He had a bleak future as a Dalit child facing caste discrimination. And yet, he became one of the founders of modern India. It was access to education that transformed his life and the future of India.
What does this mean? Quite simply it means that we in India have the means and will to unlock our future. We just need to harness these tools in a more organised way and our institutions will create an India that our children deserve. We need to make such individual cases of inspiration into an institutional habit.
Let’s first be honest about where and how we have failed. Since Independence in 1947, we have ignored the future of children by investing very little on public health and education. We still spend less than 2% of GDP on public health and just about 3.8% of GDP on education. This has resulted in poor human development indicators.
Children without access to quality education and basic amenities like immunisation, sanitation and healthcare will find it difficult to develop the skills needed for 21st century livelihoods. We need to substantially step up both quantitatively and qualitatively on these two fronts.
During the recent Bharat Yatra against child sexual abuse, children led the way and became agents of change. They created a mass movement against a horrific social evil that is a moral epidemic in India. In every village, town and city, it was children who came up with stirring words and innovative solutions. It was children who have inspired me to continue this struggle with their courage, clarity and conviction.
One powerful symbol was Kinshu who was rescued by us from child slavery. He has joined me in all my marches and is now an engineer.
It was a stirring moment when Manisha, who had been sold multiple times as a sex slave, made a direct an emotional appeal to the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, who hosted Bharat Yatra marchers at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Her appeal was simple: children like her, from poor families, must not be traded as slaves.
In fact, Manisha marched alongside me throughout the Yatra and spoke out loudly against child sexual abuse. The sheer moral power and eloquence of Manisha’s words moved the President visibly. He called victims like her, who have been rehabilitated, the real builders of a new India.
My optimism is not just because of gestures like this. It is also because of individual stories that never make headlines. Fifteen-year-old Ajay from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, was condemned to a life of poverty and illiteracy because his father, who is a driver, was too poor to give him an education. Today, he is a gifted and valued student at our Bal Ashram and loves playing cricket.
And i can never forget the courage of Ramesh from Sitamarhi in Bihar who escaped virtual slavery and is now a gifted singer at our Ashram. He is determined to become a psychologist and help children who have been abused.
Whenever i have marched, it is children who have led the way and forced the world to change. In 1998, we organised a Global March Against Child Labour. The world was stunned when children marched inside the ILO headquarters in Geneva and demanded their rights. It was children who spoke in powerful cadence when we marched in 2001, demanding that education be made a fundamental right. It is children who have inspired me to do more for them.
You could call them glimpses of a million mutinies. I would call them glimpses of a million opportunities for our children. Our children have the dreams, the talent and the faith to achieve. The most fitting way to celebrate Children’s Day is not to indulge in more rhetoric. But it lies in us collectively empowering our children.