Last week, i rescued 43 children from a toy manufacturing unit in New Delhi. When i asked them what their dream was one of them replied, “To be, one day, able to play with the toys we are making.”
My friends, how can we claim to be the largest democracy in the world, when our children are deprived of their right to play and enjoy childhood?
The development of the law on the rights of the child has been substantial but our efforts on ground have been a failure. An estimated 43 lakh children toil in conditions of exploitative and forced labour. Another 98 lakh are out of school.
Every eight minutes, a child goes missing and 8.5 lakh children die before their first birthdays. These figures only reflect the reality of a few aspects of childhood protection. But they are strong enough to shake the moral and political conscience of our nation.
As i write this, i am reminded of the Shiksha Yatra (Education March). In 2001, we marched for six months across 15,000 kilometres, scaling the length and breadth of the country to demand that education be made a fundamental right under the Constitution.
The children and ordinary people leading the march braved unruly weather conditions, overcame several obstacles and found shelter in temples, mosques and fields to reach the most marginalised and left-behind communities of India.
During the march, in a small town called Pilkhua in Uttar Pradesh, a child labourer of about 10 years of age approached me. He had just witnessed a meeting on the power of education, across the street, from the dhaba he worked at.
While handing me a small pouch, he said, “This is all the money i have and i want to give it to you for liberating children so that they can go to school.”
His gesture was simple yet very powerful. It reinstated my belief in the power of children and their innate ability to think for others. When i announced this noble act from the stage, the moral conscience of the people was shaken. Many promised to take responsibility for his schooling, including his employer who decided to set him free.
Today, education is recognised as a fundamental right under the Right to Education Act, 2009. However, failures in implementation and policy gaps have rendered it less effective.
For us to develop sustainably, it is imperative we realise the ideals contained in the law. The lack of morality and compassionate values has resulted in social and political apathy towards children. We must work towards a common goal which would be reasonably equitable and just in spirit.
It is indisputable that a change in mindset is required. Hence, our best bet for a long-term solution for children is the youth and children. As they mature into adults, their empathy and compassion will translate into an unprecedented level of global and sustained action and vigilance.
We need to create a generation of globally minded leaders, not followers. Effective advocacy cannot be achieved without the support, voice and leadership of our children. They are the embodiment of the cause and must lead the movement.
We have to ACT now. Accountability, Convergence and Technology is the key to making India more resilient and child-friendly.
Accountability of the civil society, faith leaders, government and corporates must be increased. All should be made equally responsible for fulfilling the social and economic entitlements of children.
One in three rape victims is a child. If our faith leaders start condemning such acts and banish the perpetrators of these crimes, would they not reduce? Think about the ripple effect that would ensue if the corporate world assured child-labour free manufacturing and supply chains.
The promise of a people’s voice is limitless.
A convergence of all stakeholders and coordination amongst inter-ministerial agencies are critical to our cause. The key is to re-examine or recast policies and programmes around the needs of the child.
Currently, they are fragmented across child protection, education, labour and health departments. They run some programmes such as school feeding, link education and basic nutrition, but overall greater coordination is needed.
In the struggle for childhood freedom technology can play an integral role. Cyber policing must be improved to monitor child pornography and other cyber crimes. Reporting of crimes against children can be made easier through the use of multimedia portals and applications.
There is a severe need for a strong platform to lend voice to the cause of children. It is essential Nobel laureates and global leaders come together, to put a spotlight on the greatest moral challenge of our times, the need to protect and educate every child.
The inherent dignity and rights of a child are the indisputable truths and must be accorded fully for the attainment of freedom, justice, sustainability and national prosperity. The strength of any country lies in its people and i urge you to rise up.