An old woman and an old man

She came to my in-laws in response to a small advertisement in the local vernacular newspaper for a nanny. She had been deserted by her husband and found herself alone. But being gutsy and independent, instead of weeping for the rest of her life and returning her parental family, she had decided to venture out on her own into the unknown.

My ma-in-law was pregnant with her first baby when she came and she stayed on for eleven years, well after the second child, my husband was born. The boys came to own her as their other mother, so dear she was to them. She on her part loved them as her own. She was the universal Behenji (sister).

Then on insistence from her own and her adopted family, she agreed to marry a widower. He brought with him three small children. She moved toAmritsarand she began looking after them as her own. She never had any children of her own. After about six years into the marriage the man died leaving behind three small children to be brought up and not much money except a small pension from the government job he had held till he died.

Here she was left alone twice in her life. But being who she was she was not ready to say quits. While with my in-laws she had trained herself in midwifery. With the small pension she got from government  and the calls she made to deliver babies across the city, she brought up the three children, built a house, got them all educated and married. She lived with the son and his children, one of whom too was married some time back.

Through the years she kept in touch and was there for every important occasion of the family-joyous or sad, especially those important for the two boys she had brought up. She was always brave and independent, full of self -pride and dignity.  A week back my husband picked up the phone to find Behenji weeping as he had never done before. At age 83 she had been thrown out of the home that she had built by the same children, now all grown up, that she had brought up as her very own. For months before that the “son” and his family had ill-treated her, not buying her medicines, not giving her food. He had over the years signed over everything from her to himself, so the house she had built was no longer hers and  even a part of the pension was signed over to him. She called her younger brother who came and took her with only the clothes she was wearing and a few rupees. They made sure that everything she owned was left behind. They had broken her heart and spirit and for the first time in her life Behenji sounded defeated by life.

This is Behenji’s story but I have another to tell. This was told to me by an elderly friend when she heard about Behenji. Her neighbour, an old man, about the same age as Behenji lived with his sons in a large house in one of the posh colonies ofDelhi.  Slowly as the years went by the sons asked him to move to another  floor as they needed more space as their own families were growing. Soon the old man found himself climbing two flights of steps to the second floor where he lived pretty much discarded by his sons and their family. Of course they sent him some indifferent food twice or thrice a day, which the servant delivered to him. But that was very little beyond that.


The sons began pestering him to the transfer the house to their name. Realising what his fate was to be, this perky old man took matters into his own hands. He sent his sons and their families on all paid for holiday toSingapore, for which they gladly went. In the mean time he sold off the house moved into a luxury hotel with all his money. The sons came back to find a lock on the door and instructions that they be allowed to move their own stuff out, but could no longer live in the house.

Two similar stories with different  ends…while one breaks your heart, the other brings a smile.


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A symbiotic relationship-a single woman and a transvestite

It may have been 1994-95. The year is a bit blurred now, although the events are crystal clear in my mind. We were sitting in a village in Korba, then Madhya Pradesh and now Chhatisgarh. This was long before the days of controversy on Section 377 of the IPC (the law dealing with homosexuality inIndia) became the raging public controversy it was to become and I was to join the group of petitioners asking for its reading down to exclude consenting adults.

This is the story of Kamraddhani, a single middle-aged woman and Kailash, a transvestite, two people on the margins of society who have come together is a symbiotic relationship.

We were four of us holding a meeting on impact of displacement due to the power plants in the area, with the villagers. A woman stood quietly at the edge of the group. The sari worn traditionally, heard covered, she had a permanently shut right eye, and she stood holding a thaili (a cloth bag that is used so often). She did not say word while the meeting was going on.

As we finished and the group dispersed, she came and started walking next to me. She introduced herself and said she lived in the village—but a little further off. Her husband was now dead and she lived alone with another ‘person’. Should we not hear her story?, she demanded. Of course, we would we assured her.

Her experience of displacement and rehabilitation was no different from others but her own life, how and where she lived was definitely special and heart warming.

We kept walking and talking. Kamraddhani was named after the village Karamdhin she was born in. She was married off as a child to a man in Dari village. When she was 14 or 15 she met a Malayali contracter, Thomas and ran away with him and came to live in another village from which they had been displaced when their land was acquired. So they moved to Bhadrapara where we met her. Here they managed to buy two and half acres of land and were living very well. However, she could have no children. So she sold all her jewellery, dipped into their savings, gave Thomas Rs.15,000 and sent him back to Kerala so that he could get married again.

Alone- single and childless, she was confined to margins of the village. Villages in India are not very kind to single childless women treating them as witches and inauspicious.  If she has property, then she is even easier prey to violence and the grabbing of her property.  The fact that she looked different with her permanently shut eye did not help.

As we kept walking we reached almost to the end of the village and she now began insisting we cross the small stream and go to her house. It was beginning to get dark and we hesitated but she was insistent. We must go to with her and meet the person she lives with. Whats so special about this person we asked. He is actually a man she said, but he is dresses as a woman. “I am alone and everyone in the village is ready to grab my land, although they don’t wasn’t to be friendly with me. Kailash has nobody. I am not sure where he is from…but  he arrived in my house and asked if he could work for me. I am an old woman and alone. He is young and strong and so he looks after my field for me does all the sowing and harvesting. Lives in my house….”

While we talked we reached the house and it was by now very dark. Kamradhhani pulled out a charpai and we sat down. Suddenly we heard the sound of bangles. Looking back we saw this large woman in a traditional clothes, long hair, bangles and traditional chattisgarhi jewellery -kamarbandh around the waist and anklet standing behind us.  Except when she spoke to greet us it was deep male voice. It was Kailash.

Two people, alone and vulnerable, had found each other in a mutually supportive relationship. Both lived in a society where they belonged and yet were alien because of their peculiar circumstances. They looked after each other and supported each other. By taking Kailash in and virtually adopting him, Kamradhhani had given him a social status and acceptance. Kailash provided the physical labour and the protection Kamraddhini needed.

We walked back through the village, all four of silent with what we had seen and experienced about this symbiotic relationship.


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When will we ever learn? Forced evictions and displacement of people in the name of development continues unabated

In September 2011 I was in Kathmandu where people were protesting their evacuation for developing the city. It once again brought home to me what I have seen since 1986 when I first went to the Narmada Valley where the people were threatened with displacement, which became an eventuality finally. Even as I write this there are protesters in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam who are protesting. Forced eviction and displacement is an everyday phenomenon—so everyday that we no longer notice it. And yet those who lose their homes and lands suffer as they did and will continue to do so. The government on its part will promise amendments to the archaic and colonial land acquisition law and the it is over 20 years since we have been hearing that there will be a law on resettlement and rehabilitation…in the mean time people are moved and they disappear into  oblivion or join the millions teaming to the urban slums as wage labour. So what I wrote in 2006 remains equally relevant today…except that the voices are even more dimmed than they were then. On June 1, 2012 I have been invited to speak yet once again at a release of book on displacement by Walter Fernandes- and no doubt we will be saying the same things yet once all over again.

When will we ever learn?

 17 April, 2006

I began this note on the 18th day of the hunger-strike by Medha and her colleagues of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), Bhagwatibai and Jamsingh Nargave (2006). The Hindu that morning carried an article by Usha Ramanathan, an old comrade-in-arms in the ‘development- without -displacement discourse’. It has been 20 years, but her arguments evoke a sense of déjà vu, as does the reaction from everyone else – the media, the middle class and the political leadership.  Perhaps the arguments put forth by Usha have earlier origins; they have to, because many thousands had already been dislodged and thrown out of their homes even before the 1980s.

My engagement with this debate began in the mid-eighties. Medha too had made her entry into the valley around the same time. There were researchers, activists, lawyers, environmentalists and engineers—all engaging with the issue. Dam vs. no dam; big dam vs. small dam; dams without displacement and severe environmental consequences, at the very least. Each one of the arguments put forward called for re-examination of the development model at the ‘cost’ of some. They called for cost benefit analysis of projects, taking into account the huge social costs and adequate and appropriate rehabilitation of those whose displacement is imperative, even after adopting the least displacing alternative.

I remember vividly my first walk over the Vindhyas and the Satpuras in 1986, crossing over from Maharashtra to Gujarat, through many of the villages that today are submerged in the waters of the Sardar Sarovar, the meeting of the Narmada Dharangrasth Samiti in Dhadgaon (as the movement was known in Maharashtra), crossing Narmada for the first time in a scooped up- log dinghy, the old Hapeshwar temple, now under water. I made many more trips to the valley, every time returning with a sense of despondency and fear at what would happen to all the villagers. There seemed to be little or no intent on the part of the government to be just. Clearly there was no land, atleast not enough to rehabilitate the thousands who would lose their all. The demand moved from no dam to a one for adequate and appropriate rehabilitation, land for land chosen after due consultation and infrastructural facilities at the new site. Was it so unreasonable a demand? After all, they were being made to pay a huge price for development.

In “Big Dams Displaced People: Rivers of Sorrow Rivers of Change” (SAGE, 1992), a volume which had taken me four years to put together, the studies on all dams covered right from the Hirakud, one of the first dams to be constructed, Pong, Nagarjuna Sagar and Ukai reflected the same experience. What was happening in Narmada and the Tehri was exactly the same. It was a long history of lack of rehabilitation or ill-planned, badly executed, inadequate and inappropriate rehabilitation. Those who lost all, gained nothing and, were instead pauperized. The waters of the Damodar Valley Project flooded villages of West Bengal every year. My father, a hard core bureaucrat, who had been posted at different times in the flood control department in Assam and in DVC in Bengal would often say, “if you tamper with nature, it has a way of getting back at you. The DVC is an example of that”. But the nation was on a dam building spree; the temples of modern India were coming up one after the other. And there was no stopping it.

For two decades the Narmada Bachao Andolan has drawn young people from across the country –  people who saw the movement as one representing the concerns of all those already displaced, and those who would be in the future. Generation after generation of young people moves in to fill up the space of those who work, struggle and move on, so that the peaceful movement can thrive and resist the violence perpetrated. But the construction of dams has gone on at its own pace, relentlessly. Harsud, where in 1989, thousands from all over the country had congregated, calling for a more sustainable developmental model, is now a ghost town, given up to the Narmada Sagar Sagar dam, one of the other monsters on the Narmada. It is almost as if there is a competition –who will survive whom – the peaceful resistance or the violence in the name of development. Matching the resilience of the NBA is the stubborn refusal of the government to give in to their demands. The withdrawal of funding from the World Bank, a major coup, only seemed to make the government more cussed.

During a recent television interview, the young reporter asked me—how did you protest in those days? what was the role of the media? And the Politicians? All I could say was – the same as you see today.

The potential oustees and the activists would sit at the Boat Club or outside the Planning Commission or Shram Shakti Bhavan. They engaged in non-violent protests, just as they do today. As for the attitude of the media, little has changed. It had to be high drama then to make news; it has to be even more ‘sansani’ now. With many more news channels, one would have thought there would be more space for the voices of the people. But then displacement of poor and the marginalized does not make for a ‘sexy’ story, not enough to gather revenue from the advertisers, unless the condition of the activists is allowed to deteriorate, as Medha’s and Bhagwatibai’s has been. Or unless stars lend support. The print media is unfortunately no different. There was international support was there then as it is there now, except that with the internet, communicating across the world has become much easier.

Development related displacement remains a ‘non-middle class’ issue. It does not raise the ire of the middle class or the ‘beautiful people’ enough for them to come on to the streets and march with the affected. Even the other issue-based activists took their time lending their support. That is how we have become – divided by issues, caste, class, region and religion. So divided, that we find it difficult to stand side by side with causes that seem alien to us.  I am angry about the injustice meted to Jessica Lal. But I am also angered by the fact that the same people who can see injustice in that case, do not see the injustice being meted out to the Narmada oustees or those from Bhopal sitting across the road! I asked my journalist friends – what makes an issue a middle class issue? Why is it that they are unable to position the Narmada debate as a middle class issue? Is it only the fear that it may be my kid who gets shot in some pub that makes the middle-class wake up? Well in that case, the demolitions in Delhi ought to remind us that our lands and properties may be next on the ‘development path’ of some industry, road, mine or flyover and this model of development can be cruel and demanding. It is time we came out to support those on the streets at Jantar Mantar. Who knows, we too may need support from the rest of India soon too?

Watching reports of the failed talks of the ‘high powered committee’ on the Narmada, followed by the pugnacious speech of the Gujarat Chief Minister, only reminds one of numerous other such meetings over the years. The arguments, the demands, the disappointments- nothing has changed. As before, the political leadership polarised and unyielding, out to gain political mileage with scant regard for the people it represents. As before we await the verdict of the Supreme Court.

Even as I write this, Medha and her friends have moved into the 20th day of the fast. There seems to be very little happening towards finding a solution. Back in the 1980s and even in the early 1990s we still lived in hope. We had hoped that research, movements and campaigns would change perspectives on development, displacement and rehabilitation. More fool us—Medha, Baba Amte, Sundarlal ji, Mahendra Bhai, Ramesh Bhai Desai, Walter Fernandes—and all the others who spent many years in these campaigns or supporting these campaigns with research information or litigation.  Today the space for resistance and dissent is shrinking. Non-violent protest leads to violence, and the state supports it. The firing in Kalinga Nagar , Orissa bears testimony, to this as does the arrest and firing on protestors against displacement by the upcoming dockyard in Vishakapatnam.

We all know that there is no stopping the Sardar Sarovar dam and that is perhaps true for all other dams too is appears, even though we must keep fighting. We also know they will never deliver the promised results. However is it so unreasonable to demand proper and fair rehabilitation of the outsees before carrying on with these damn dams?

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Protecting Children from Cyberspace, Speech at the 41st World Tele- communications and Information Society Day Celebration Day Celebrations. 4 May.2009

I am indeed honoured to be invited to speak at the 41st World Tele- communications and Information Society Day Celebration Day Celebrations.

The topic Protecting Children from Cyberspace, as any of you who may have heard of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights that I represent, would know, is very close to my heart.

While I was thinking of what to say today, it struck me that “cyberspace” was not in my dictionary as I was growing up. I belong to what I could refer to as the cusp generation…the ones who were not born with the world of the computer and Internet, but was introduced to it in their youth. I can still remember my excitement when I received and sent my first email in 1996. It was as if I was witnessing a miracle—sending a letter and receiving a reply within minutes from a country that was barely waking up as my day was ending…. indeed, being a particularly un-scientific type of person, the world of the internet never ceases to amaze and fascinate me. Then when the cell phone arrived…my jaw fell open. You can talk to anyone from virtually anywhere…and if you do not want to talk, there is the text message. The entire toppling of Government in Philippines –Edsa 2-happened through the mobilisation of people through texting.

All of us today have access to the world at the click of a button—information, pictures, videos—the options are endless. No more does one need to travel to different places to gather information, unless it is primary research, plow through books after books in libraries. Indeed, even activism no longer requires long marches and dharnas on the streets. It is done through the email. And yet there is a catch. As we say in Hindi—kahin kuch to gadbad hai…and that is the subject given to me tonight.

Born with screens of various sizes before them many if not most children, you will find, move from one to the other—the screens of games (game boy etc.); mobile phones, computer screens to the television….

Games no longer need to be played on fields and courts. The meaning of meeting, talking and chatting has changed. You can meet online…physical presence is no longer required, you don’t need no longer look at a person or hear a voice to talk or chat. When a child says I have been chatting with so and so or talking to so and so—what they mean is they have been typing words on the computer and sending it into cyberspace, or they are sms–ing or even mms–ing —and this goes on for hours and hours on end. And of course now there is the skype—you can see and talk but not really be there.

Several repercussions can be seen:

I was asked to be a judge for an essay writing competition on child rights. Essays written by children from several well-known public schools were sent to me. Several of them were similar or even identical and suspiciously familiar. After a little bit of search I discovered, my article in one of the journals that was on the net and the children had done a search, cut and paste!

This is only an example …with easy access to information; the ability to think originally is being challenged. Serious research also suffers from the malaise of search, cut and paste—no citations, no footnotes! There is often an information overload, and children do not know how to process it or deal with it.

Chatting and texting has developed its own language—no grammar, no spellings. Several times we receive a job application on email that has a cover mail using text language.

Worse, since chatting and talking does not require eye contact, body language or recognition of voice intonation, children and youth will slowly lose their social and inter-personal skills—the very capacity to interact with persons…and life doesn’t happen before a computer screen. We should not be surprised that children today are growing up self-absorbed and individualistic. Indeed, we must mot be surprised or upset when they grow up to be self-absorbed and individualistic.

All or most middle class parents at some point have to deal with children who have been caught visiting pornographic sites. Even the children of the poor, who go to schools and have minimalist computer skills, visit cyber cafes that abound. Reports of abuse and violence are reported every now and then— pictures of children being posted on pornographic sites, the much talked about and reported mms scandal. A recent rape of a girl reported in the papers about a fortnight ago was by a face-book friend. Clearly virtual friendships are not so benign when they come face to face. Children have been discovered taking compromising photos of themselves and their friends and sending them over phones and computers. Knowingly or unknowingly, children find themselves in abusive relationships with older persons stalking for children. While there are no systematic studies in India, according to a survey in the USA, one in five girls and 18 per cent boys between the age of 13-16 have sent or posted nude or semi-nude, photos; about 15 per cent have forwarded photos to people they do not actually know and have only met online. The data you gave me with my invite tells me 60 per cent children and adolescents talk in chat rooms daily and three in four children share family and other information freely, lending themselves vulnerable to predators on the prowl. Not surprisingly one in five children will be targeted by paedophiles. Indeed, it is well-known that paedophiles use the internet to conduct business negotiations and make bookings.

Let us not for a minute believe and state that –oh but this is a western phenomenon. We used to say that about child sexual abuse, till India now has the highest number of child sexual abuse cases in the world. The indications are all there—we need to look sharp and fast. How do we Protect Children in Cyber Space—indeed how does one protect our children in the world of virtual reality.. that impacts their own reality.

Parents and family have the first responsibility. Rules for cell phone and internet use must be set and adhered to. Taking it away, or closing access is not the solution because the children will find alternatives and you will have lost them. Besides, even if they themselves are not voluntarily accessing such sites or indulging in such activities, our own experience tells us that no amount of filtering keeps away those lurid mails from filling up our mail- boxes. Talk to children, keep the channels of communication open so that we know what they are upto, what they are thinking, what they have been doing. Tell them how to protect themselves, and how to process the often-unsolicited information they receive. Tell them that what they may be doing for “fun” may actually be cyber crime leading to apprehension by the police and all the complications that follow. The Child Online Protection Initiative of the ITU is indeed a welcome initiative. Anything in excess leads to degeneration, and while the internet brings the world into our homes, giving access to knowledge and information, it also takes away privacy and protection.

Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama says…we have

More knowledge, but less judgment

More experts, but more problems

We’ve been all the way to the moon and back

But have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour…

Even he ends by saying if we don’t like what we read, we should press the delete button …referring to how easy it is to give or take away information.

Let us not make our children reject technology…simply teach them to use it more prudently


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Who remembers Budhiya today? Remember the child who ran and ran to fame……

How many of us remember Budhiya today? In 2006, he created a storm with the media going crazy debating whether Budhiya should be made to run or not? whether his coach Biranchi was a villain or a good kindred soul?
Like all breaking news Budhiya and his running are long forgotten as we have all moved on to more breaking news stories. Fame and media attention is so effervescent and this comes home to us as we hear and learn of the stories of children such as Budgiya yesterday, Falak and baby Afreen yesterday and who knows who tomorrow……
I wrote this piece in 2006, but my thoughts on the issue remain.
A Prodigy, Packaged And Sold
Don’t just blame Budhia’s coach, we’re all guilty of making him run

No, this is not yet another piece on Budhia Singh—whether he should have been allowed to run 65 kilometres. Nor is this a part of the debate surrounding his coach and his motives. Not because I don’t have an opinion on the issue. Indeed, like everyone else, I do. This piece is more to do with the questions that a story like Budhia’s pose. It’s about young children and their journey to success and fame, and the role that all of us play in it.
The world has, forever, known child prodigies—Mozart, Beethoven, Ramanujan, Jodie Foster, Lata Mangeshkar, Zakir Hussain, Nadia Comaneci, to name a few. Do the lives of all these stars raise the same questions? Perhaps yes, because the core issue remains the same—how much push and how soon?

What makes a child prodigy a potential star? Clearly, these are children who are special. But given today’s hunger for visual gratification, ability and talent are not enough. A musician must possess an X-factor, as must a sportsperson or a designer. At times this X-factor comes not with looks and clothes, but with age, rather the lack of it. A child who performs beyond his or her age pulls at our heartstrings and fascinates us—like Budhia.

But fame is effervescent. Ensuring continuous visibility is, therefore, imperative, especially if money has to flow. Not only must child prodigies catch the public eye, they must remain there. Hence, package them and turn them into stars. If we don’t, they might meet the fate of Sanka Raviteja who, at nine, won the Asian Youth Chess Championship and brought home the silver from the World Youth Chess Championships, 2004, in Greece. He has since faded from public and official memory. His parents are still trying to pay off the debts they incurred to take him to Greece.

It’s a vicious cycle. News is created as are newsmakers— they have to be, if TRP ratings have to soar and newspapers have to retain and increase readership. As audience and readers, we’re force-fed on news and newsmakers and grow addicted to them. The more addicted we become, the more we seek. And while we watch others, there creeps upon us the latent desire to be like ‘them’. If as adults we cannot be there, we try vicariously, through our children and protégés.

Television shows such as India’s Child Genius: The Search for India’s Smartest Kid tell us that visibility and fame are within our kid’s reach. No wonder parents and coaches push their wards into daredevil sporting events or reality shows like Boogie Woogie where they dress and perform like adults, and for which they must suffer endless hours of arduous practice. Ramanujan did not need a show like this. Nor did Zakir Hussain’s name need to be texted on mobile phones for him to be acknowledged a prodigy.

The other big message being beamed is that there is no space for the ordinary, the average. Those who cannot be seen or heard are losers. And who wants to be a loser? So, as adults we push, as children, we strive. Budhia’s coach, Biranchi Das, is but a product of our times. If he and Budhia are to be famous and rich, he realises, they must be visible. Budhia’s X-factor, his age, has to be packaged and sold.

Had Budhia been made to work in a glass factory or in a zari loom, we would have immediately labelled it child labour. But it’s not a term we would use to describe Budhia running a marathon (although he was bought for Rs 800), or what other young and talented kids are doing to make news everyday—riding motorcycles well before they are eligible for a licence, practising dance and music for hours. Or working as child stars. Accompanied by their parents, they move from studio to studio, shoot several shifts and, in between, try to complete their homework, in cars or on location. Take seven-year-old Shreya Sharma, ‘famous’ on the small screen as Sneha in Star Plus’ Kasauti Zindagi Kay. “Even after spending maximum time shooting, she is brilliant in studies and stands first in her class,” says her proud mother.

No doubt talented children must be encouraged. As adults, we owe it to them. But there is only a thin, almost invisible line that separates encouragement from pushing, and pushing from exploitation. Maybe the fault also lies in our limited understanding of child labour, reflected in the child labour law, which bans employment only in hazardous occupations. Perhaps Budhia’s case will force us to take a fresh look at the law. Clearly, no child must be made to perform any act harmful to him or her, physically or psychologically, and unsuitable to his or her age.

That notwithstanding, Budhia’s case represents the malaise that has set into our society, a malaise in which all of us play a role as adults, as readers, as audience, as media. Because we all love a star! Time we examined the Biranchi within each of us.

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Children’s rights in India (Published in Vol 3, Issue 1, Combat Law)

Every time my 16-year old daughter gets on to stage to dance, she dusts some extremely fine shiny stuff on her face and it glitters and shines. By the time she is off the stage, most of the shiny glitter is gone, except for some bits of sparkle here and there, and by the next morning there is no trace of it. India’s shine is much like that – here today, gone tomorrow – effervescent and transient.

Every day we see articles focusing on the shining and the non-shining `bits’ of India. But if anything or anyone truly shines in India today, it is her children, comprising over one fourth of our population. Resilient and lively, they continue to smile and give hope in the not so shining bits of India that most of them inhabit. But then, they are not voters. What they think or feel does not count.

Indians constitute 16 per cent of the world’s population, occupying 2.42 percent of its land area. India has more working children than any other nation, as also among the lowest female-male ratios. Despite Constitutional guarantees of civil rights, children face discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity and religion. Even the basic need for birth registration that will assure them a nationality and identity remains unaddressed, affecting children’s rights to basic services.

India is also home to one of the largest illiterate citizenries in the world. In the not so shining India we see, hear and read of, children are dying of starvation, while food in our granaries rots and feeds rats. We watch while the female sex ratio dips. Little children, barely able to stand, are married off flouting all laws. Little ones are sacrificed, trafficked and sold; as others are locked, abused, sodomised – the list is endless. And there are all those realities that never make the news. We know this is only the tip of the iceberg, but we choose not to act. Our silence and tolerance not only condones such violation of rights, it also makes us guilty of complicity.

Therefore, any understanding of human rights of children cannot be confined to some children – ‘poor children’, ‘working children’ and ‘marginalised children’. Such categories only help us to remove ourselves from the problem. Let us not delude ourselves. Violations of children’s rights are not limited to the poor and downtrodden. They happen in middle class and elite homes too, albeit in different forms, and the silence around these is even deeper. Also, any analysis on the situation of children must be understood within the context of the economic and political changes in the country. Of particular importance are globalisation and liberalisation, and the gender, caste and religious attitudes that prevail today. All these add to children’s vulnerability and affect any action that may be taken for them.

Any understanding of human rights of children cannot be confined to some children – ‘poor children’, ‘working children’ and ‘marginalised children’. Violations of children’s rights are not limited to the poor and downtrodden. They happen in middle class and elite homes too.

•  Give our children a chance

Children are not a homogeneous category. Like adults, they are divided into different categories based on social and economic status, physical and mental ability, geographical location etc. These differences determine the difference in the degree of their vulnerability. While gender discrimination exists almost all over the world, it is much greater in some countries – and India is definitely one of them. Girls in vulnerable situations such as poverty, disability, homelessness etc. find themselves doubly disadvantaged, by their gender and the physical, economic, political, social situation that they find themselves in. It is therefore imperative to take a gender perspective into account in examining the situation of children.

The Rights vs. Welfarist approach

The Constitution of India provides a comprehensive understanding of child rights. A fairly comprehensive legal regime exists for their implementation. India is also signatory to several international legal instruments including the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). However, the government seems to be more comfortable with the idea of well-being rather than rights (with its political overtones). Child rights activists are faced with challenges of promoting and protecting rights as a positive social value.

Needless to say, ours is not the only government to do so. The Union Government’s ideology resonates with the watering down of the rights based framework in the recent UN Special Session on Children which failed to reaffirm international pledges made in 1990 to protect the rights of children.

The government’s approach remains largely welfarist. India is yet to adopt a single comprehensive code that addresses the provisions of the CRC. Clearly the draft National Policy (Charter) for Children which has been recently passed in parliament, and is envisaged as being such a code, is inadequate as it does not address the full range of rights. It does not make any reference to the CRC. In the words of the Joint Secretary Department of Women and Child, GOI, it captures the ‘essence of the CRC’ thereby does not need to refer to it!

Child Rights – From an adult’s perspective

An examination of the laws shows that although they are meant to protect the interests of children, they have been formulated from the point of view of adults and not children. They are neither child-centred, nor child friendly, nor do they always resonate with the CRC.

The problem begins with the very definition of ‘child’ within the Indian legal and policy framework. The CRC defines children as persons below the age of 18 years, however different laws stipulate different cut-off ages to define a child. Only the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2000 is in consonance with the Convention. In the absence of a clear definition of a child, it is left to various laws and interpretations.

A child born out of wedlock or of a void or illegal marriage is considered ‘illegitimate’. Children pay for the decisions taken by the parents and are denied inheritance rights. Even worse, a child born of rape is stigmatised and treated as ‘illegitimate’, both by society and law.

That our laws are not child friendly or child oriented is also evident in the distinction family laws make between legitimate and illegitimate children depending on the status of their parents’ marriage or relationship. A child born out of wedlock or of a void or illegal marriage is considered ‘illegitimate’. Children pay for the decisions taken by the parents and are denied inheritance rights. Even worse, a child born of rape is stigmatised and treated as ‘illegitimate’, both by society and law.

Access to health – A chimera

The health of our children continues to be a matter of grave concern, especially in the wake of growing privatisation of health services, and their increasing inaccessibility for the poor. This is a particularly serious situation as environmental degradation and pollution lead to a further deterioration in children’s health. The working conditions that many children are forced to suffer worsens matters.

In our shining India, children suffer from malnutrition or die of starvation and preventable diseases. According to UNAIDS there are 170,000 children infected by HIV/AIDS in India. Children affected by the virus-whether children of victims or those who are infected themselves– live on the fringes of society, ostracised by people they call their own, unloved and uncared for, even as our government continues to squabble over numbers of affected people. Even juvenile diabetes is reported to be taking on pandemic proportions.

While the Constitution lays down the duties of the State with respect to health care, there is no law addressing the issue of public health. Children’s health care needs continue to be in great part dealt under the Reproductive and Child Health Programme of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, with a focus on reproductive health and safe motherhood and child survival. The other health needs of children are addressed by the country’s primary health care system; with very little attempt to address these needs specifically or separately.

The population policy with its coercive manifestations in the states has of course proved most ‘children unfriendly’. Parents aspiring to political positions are now forced to choose between children and politics. Law does not allow persons with more than two children to hold elected positions in local self governments-and many choose politics as they disown their children or give them up for ‘adoption’ in an effort to keep to the ‘right’ family size.

The Government has announced its National Health Policy 2000. One cannot but note that children do not find mention as a separate category – yet another example of the lack of child focus in our planning and implementation.

Education for all – A promise yet to translate

Education for all is also a promise held out by the state. An examination of State policies and programmes shows that education is not going to open the promised gateway to equality. Indeed if anything, it is a promise of ‘differential education for all’ (read ‘some’ even here). While some children continue to have access to mainstream schools or expensive private schools, the rest must contend with ‘non-formal’ second grade education provided by untrained and lowly paid ‘para- teachers’. As if that was not enough, the new curriculum framework has opened up a can of worms on the kind of biased syllabus, with incorrect or incomplete content, that our children will be subjected to.

The passing of the 93rd Amendment Bill (passed as the 86th Amendment to the Constitution) making education a fundamental right, should have been an occasion to rejoice. Instead it has become an issue for another long struggle because it only reinforces the lack of political will to make education universal and accessible for all. By leaving out those in the critical 0-6 years age group, putting the onus of creating conditions on parents for sending children to school and making it their fundamental duty, by reinforcing parallel streams of education, the amendment has once again sealed the fate of poor and marginalised children.

Although the rhetoric speaks of free and compulsory education for all, in practice, the education system seems to be designed to keep children out of it. To implement the 86th Amendment, the government has drafted ‘The Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2003. Concerns and criticisms on this bill are being expressed by educationists and activists.

While some children continue to have access to mainstream schools or expensive private schools, the rest must contend with ‘non-formal’ second grade education provided by untrained and lowly paid ‘para- teachers’.

Beatings, abuse, physical and mental torture faced by the students in schools is one of the reasons for the high dropout rate. It is well established that corporal punishment is detrimental to children’s growth and development. It is in violation of their rights. But there is no comprehensive national law banning it, although several states have even enacted laws dealing with it. Moreover the National Education Policy, 1992 clearly states that corporal punishment should be firmly excluded from the education system. Despite that, however, there are several cases that have been registered against teachers in schools for use of violence.

At a recent workshop attended by children from across the country was a young spastic child named Debu.

I have a right to be called by my name. Why is it that all children are called by their names and I am called langda (lame) or even pagal (mad)?

This made all the other children sit up and look at Debu in a new light. While they had been discussing their rights, it had not occurred to them that children with disabilities may be denied even this basic right. Children with disability continue to suffer unequal opportunities for survival and development. They are denied personal or economic security, health care, education and all basic needs necessary for their growth. Further certain disabilities, such as, for example mental disability carry even greater stigma. And if the disabled child is a girl, then the discrimination is doubled. The rights of disabled persons has finally been recognised with the enactment of the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

Children in situations of crime and exploitation

Recognising the flaws of the 1986 Juvenile Justice Act, the government passed the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000. But the knee jerk reaction in amending the law without a wider discussion and consultation with child rights practitioners, has left many who are concerned with children and work with them deeply distressed. In 2003 the government drafted amendments to the law. But, because of criticisms and concerns raised by several organisations and groups, it has been placed before a Parliamentary Standing Committee. The Committee is currently reviewing the law.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation Act) was enacted in 1986, to specifically address the situation of children in labour. However, this law distinguishes between hazardous and non-hazardous forms of labour, and identifies certain processes and occupations from which children are prohibited from working. It leaves out a large range of activities that children are engaged in and are exploited and abused. The large-scale exploitation and abuse of children employed in domestic work and hotels are cases in point.

Child trafficking is one of the most heinous manifestations of violence against children. This is taking on alarming proportions – nationally and internationally. Although, very little reliable data or documentation is available, meetings and consultations across the country have revealed the gravity and the extent of this crime. It is high time we understood and realised that children are trafficked for a number of reasons and this cannot be treated synonymously with prostitution. The absence of this comprehensive understanding and a comprehensive law that addresses all forms of trafficking to back it makes this issue even more critical.

Adoption: The need for greater checks and balances

Adoption is one of the best and appropriate forms of alternative family care. Indeed, it is the only way to break the mindset of institutional care for children, which has been posed as the only solution for many years.

However, adoption of children continues to be determined by religion of the adoptive parents or the child when religion is known. Only Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs can adopt children. The personal laws of other religions – Muslims, Parsis, and Jews do not allow it. Even as it exists for Hindus, the law has serious flaws discriminating against married women. It allows only married men to adopt. Further, it only allows for adoption of children of opposite genders.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 also provides for adoption making no exception on the basis of religion. So more complications may arise. Besides, the large scale setting up of baby shops and the selling of babies from poor families has caused panic across the country. We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Greater checks and balances are required to ensure that adoption is legal and proper, and that it is not being used as a means of trafficking of children.

Protection from, or by, instruments of violence?

In January 2002, a school going girl in Jammu, while discussing the Right to Protection said that even in the current environment of unrest she felt protected because she had armed guards, who accompanied her to school! She was not alone. There were others too who felt protected because they had guards. Incidentally, one of them was from the Kaluchak Army School in an army base, which was attacked by terrorists a month later. We need to ask ourselves what environment are we providing to our children where they need instruments of violence to feel protected?

In January 2002, a schoolgirl in Jammu said that even in the current environment of unrest she felt protected because she had armed guards, who accompanied her to school! What environment are we providing to our children where they need instruments of violence to feel protected?

Armed conflicts across the country, based on religion, ethnicity, and caste have affected the lives of children everywhere. The recent violence in Gujarat is still fresh in all our minds. Children continue to suffer from the conflict that Punjab faced in the last decade. The ongoing situation in Kashmir and in many of the North Eastern States has led to many child casualties. Children are both victims and perpetrators, brainwashed and incited into following adults in spreading violence. Even as they are seen as perpetrators of violence, they are victims of an adult worldview imposed on young minds.

Children and disaster mitigation

Thousands of children are homeless or living in inadequate living conditions. Thousands of others are displaced in the name of development and progress. Land is acquired for ‘public purpose’, while the benefits seldom include those who are evicted and displaced. Yet others are de-housed as a result of natural calamities – the floods, cyclones, earthquakes that have come to become almost a regular feature in our country. In all of these, while whole communities are affected, children are affected even more.

An estimated 3.3 million children were affected by the supercyclone that hit the coastal districts of Orissa on October 29, 1999. But NGOs reported that for five days after the cyclone, no special attention was focussed on the needs of children. There was very little information on where the children were, where they were going, or being taken.

How many children were actually displaced, how many died in the earthquake that hit Gujarat on 26 January, 2000? No one has exact numbers. This is true of all such situations of disaster or displacement. The need is to ensure that along with immediate relief measures, proper information is collected so that we can get a sense of the numbers affected, and ensure that children are helped to move back to a semblance of normalcy as soon as possible. This is to ensure that there are no long-term psychological implications. In the absence of a holistic disaster mitigation policy, which is also designed to be child friendly, this will not be possible. The same is true for rehabilitation policies for development- related displacement.

Child participation: Many miles to go

It is only with the ratifying of the Child Rights Convention that children’s rights to participation began gaining formal recognition, although several NGOs had initiated processes to enlist participation of children and young adults long before the CRC. There is, however, no universal or accepted definition of child participation. Various groups and individuals have defined it according to their own understanding. There is still a fairly long journey before this ‘inclusion’ of children’s participation is internalised and accepted widely.

Is the situation confronting the lives of our children bleak, or is there reason for hope? Can we promise them an India that truly shines? What do elections hold for these non-voters? Lest we forget, they are the adults of tomorrow, and they willhold the adults of today accountable someday.

 Published in  Combat Law, Volume 3, Issue 1
April-May 2004

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The Myriad Faces of India (Visual Arts Gallery India Habitat Centre’s Art Journal. Volume 7, April 2006-March 2007)

“There are people from many Islands here madam…Haryana, Punjab, Assam, West Bengal (saab islands se bacche aaye hain madam) …,” explained a local to me on being asked what was happening at the stadium in Port Blair in the Andamans.

 When I was studying in Shillong, my friends from the North East would ask me, “Are you going to see the Indian dance?” I would often find myself being referred to as an Indian at the All India Radio, Shillong, where I was a part-time announcer. Obviously there were different Indias with different perceptions of what  India  was.

 More recently in the office, colleagues were discussing the cooking of a certain kind of food. A North Indian colleague asserted, “But this is how this vegetable is cooked…” She had to be reminded gently that North India too has its differences, and North India, comprising the Hindi speaking belt, is not the whole of India!

 In another instance a Sri Lankan friend commented, “How can Indian men bear to sit on horse to be married and go down the street making a spectacle of themselves?” Another friend taking umbrage to this stereotyping said, “But that is not how it happens all over India!”

 So when one is asked to write about India, one cannot help but wonder — which India? The India that one sees in old style Bollywood films — sometimes bleak and dreary, or with dancing tribals in costumes and feathers, or the modern day version where all the babes look cool and beautiful and men look like hunks — largely Punjabi urban cosmopolitan? Many others have different images — snake charmers, men in bright turbans, monkeys and tigers on the one hand, fast growing economy with all the indications of “modern India. Which is the real India?

 Even driving through the Capital city presents so many different Indias. Sari clad women, heads covered with a pallu and with yellow plastic helmets over that, working on the Delhi Metro; a young man in Mercedes Benz throwing a coke can nonchalantly out of the car window; men on a motorcycle who kill a car driver who brushed past them on a heavy traffic day. Thousands of houses razed to the ground, evicting families who have lived on that land for 30 years to make way for beautification of Delhi before the Common Wealth Games, even while Supreme Court allows the construction of glitzy malls on the ridge to continue because the builders have already invested so much money! And this is only the Capital.

 The further one moves from the metros, the notion of what Indiais changes. Indeed, the conditions in which the citizens live almost makes one wonder if they are truly considered Indians by the rest of India.

 Far far away from the Capital, on the border of India and Bangladesh, 5,000 people live on a sand bank in the middle of the Padma river, that divided the two countries. They have moved there after their houses were washed away by the river in spate. The River Padma is known to gobble up thousands of acres of land every year as she changes her course. Families, children, women and men, old and young,  live on this char with access to no services. After all they are not meant to be there. Women and children walk on the burning sands with their quotas of sugar and rice on their heads, their proof of Indian Citizenship hanging from their waists. No schools, no dispensary, no electricity, sandy land – that is their life. And then when they sell their share of sugar and rice into Bangladesh, they are smuggling! The men, women and children who occupy the char are Indians, but who remembers that they even exist?

 To the extreme south of India lie the wonderous Andaman andNicobar Islands. The Andamans are some of busiest tourist destinations and sold as such by the government and private enterprise alike. Years ago, before the British and we “the main landers” discovered these islands, they were inhabited by islanders who are their original inhabitants. Today there remain only some 5,000 of them — all the tribes together. A colleague who visited Port Blair made a very interesting observation. “You have Kamaraj Road, the ubiquitous MG Road– every possible name you may find somewhere in the rest of India, but there is only one place that has a local name — the Shompen Hotel, which too is run by some private hotelier.” This too is India.

 On my last visit to Himachal, the enterprising young man who was driving us in his new Scorpio over the RohtangPass, pointed to the mountains and said, “The mountain tops from Rohtang to Chandrakhani Pass are being leased to the FORD company. They will build ski resorts, ski slopes, restaurants… People who live on some of that land are being forced to leave. All these bhutta wallahs, ghode wallahs, boot-coat wallahs you see will be gone. Now all of us will wear FORD uniforms and become their employees — guides, instructors, drivers, coffee-vendors, cell genetically modified corn in cups, right here in our own land. Aise hi to aaatank vadi bante hain madam! (This is how terrorists are born madam). The events of Nandigram and Singur are still fresh reminders of what can happen. But do we learn our lessons?

 Every day the visuals in the media, the politicians who govern us, the rich and the famous who occupy important positions in government or outside will remind us how India is progressing. The malls, the flyovers, the freeways are all treatise to the “brand India” we have become. No longer shopping abroad is needed to get the best brands of lingerie, clothes, cosmetics or electronics. No longer does the slow Fiat or Ambassador need to be the only choice of cars.  Indeed, over the last decade, like countries across the world,India too has embarked on a course of changing its existing economic models in favour of one driven by the free-market, incorporating  processes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation and these are dominant symbols of “growth and progress”, as is the GDP rate and the stock market.

 But how do we reconcile the different parts that are India? An India where potable water is not a “public issue” for all those who have access to well-marketed bottled water. Public health services no longer matter, as high-tech, super-speciality hospitals that look like hotels flood the market along with myriad health insurance schemes, even while people die of starvation, locally grown food is replaced by beautiful genetically modified food in tetra-packs. A country where lakhs of children remain out of school while there are air-conditioned public schools available to those who can afford. A country which has no space for homosexuality, even while it welcomes hijras to celebrate every occasion, worships goddesses and kills girls even before they are born, makes a public fetish about secularism, but encourages state-sponsored riots, places a woman as President – a rubber stamp position of the country — but ensures that women in bureaucracy are kept away from positions that matter. An India, as someone wrote recently, that has the most honest Prime Minister heading the most corrupt government. How do we live with ourselves?

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