Robbed of a Decent Childhood, India's Voiceless Children Deserve More

An argument in favour of a public solution to childcare deficiencies.

Except in a few horrendous cases of child abuse, rape and death, children and their living realities are rarely put on the radar of policy, media or political attention in our country. Indeed, this article on children under six and their overall neglect has been written because this topic is not perceived as sensational or newsworthy.

Yet, no news is not necessarily good news. On the contrary, there are many concerns with respect to unequal childhoods in our segmented society that deserve our urgent attention but remain unaddressed. Children are not part of the ‘vote bank’, which is why political parties do not care about their ill-fare. Some work in fields and factories, at homes and hotels, but hardly constitute an organised and combative workforce and are thus easily exploited by their employers. Policymakers routinely remain indifferent to proper implementation of already inconspicuous child welfare policies.

Since children lack both the political resource of ‘voice’ and the consumer resource of ‘choice’, they are ignored by the state, ill-used by the market, and made invisible by society. One is therefore driven to exclaim, paraphrasing the question that Alexandr Kuprin asks in his novel Yama, ‘Do you understand, gentlemen, the worry is just in this that there is not much worry?’

Some would argue that nurturing childhood is quintessentially a parental privilege and that it is unacceptably paternalistic to render the same a public concern. But the past and the present, here and elsewhere, amply show that we need not be forced to choose between family autonomy and social commitment in order to protect and promote a child’s growth. In fact, far from being in zero-sum opposition, familial and social priority in this regard need, in principle, to resonate together.

What we need to defend

There is no denying the fact that there are ‘our’ families and ‘their’ families, a socio-economically stratified reality of this graded society. Consequently, wherewithal for parenting is highly uneven, often creating a vicious cycle of unequal parenthood and unequal childhood. Hence, even when we respect the space of private choice of individual families, the scope and need for public concern and action to equalise opportunities for children stand paramount.

Indeed, to ensure the quality of life of the children what we need is a predominantly non-profit regimen of social policies and public institutions, even when for-profit alternatives exist. Some of the public initiatives such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) that have been undertaken to expand and improve nutritional and educational opportunities for all children in the country seem significant to many underprivileged parents, even with all their shortcomings.

Credit: File photo

For example, in a city like Kolkata, where the urban poor, the ‘footloose’ labourers and their footloose children, struggle hard to lay claim on the city space, many of them view the small room called the anganwadi, a publicly provided institutional space, as giving legitimacy to their ‘right to the city’. Similarly, in several villages, a sizeable section of parents appears hopeful about the ICDS scheme while others are vocal about its under-performance. Importantly, even their complaints entail a citizenly assertion to both defend public institutions and at once demand their improvement.

What we need to improve

The idea, therefore, is to ‘fix’, and not ‘abandon’. In many parts of our country, we need to radically improve the provisioning and functioning of childcare services, let alone their planning and funding. The vision that underlies such programmes, as well as the attendant practices and resources, often remain grossly wanting.

At the heart of Kolkata, for example, a roadside shop owner described one of the local ICDS offices as an outfit that ‘distributes rice, daal, and puffed rice’. When the official hub that runs the scheme occupies such a lacklustre position in the public imagination, it is not surprising that ‘karmees’ (they are purposively not called teachers) of anganwadis are routinely addressed as ‘khichuri aunties’ of ‘khuchuri schools’.

What we radically need to improve therefore are the resources earmarked for children, and the training programmes that are meant for the preparation and development of their teachers and caregivers. The extant programmes suffer from a serious lack of developing their professional skills, as they are often treated by the system as insignificant and cheap ‘cogs’ in a minimalist wheel of child welfare programme. They are at once under the tight grip of administrative orders and yet neglected as members of a professional childcare workforce.

Significantly, thanks to more effective social policies, greater funds, and more concerted and collective efforts for their implementation, in some parts of the country, early years of childhood have been made more secure and less uneven than what we see in other parts of the same nation. In some parts, a democratic social norm in favour of ‘a decent childhood for all’ is nurtured with care and commitment, resulting in hopeful improvements in their nutritional, cognitive, and socio-emotional status. In toher areas, however, politics remains indifferent at best, or contributing otherwise, to the everyday predicaments that many children in those regions suffer from.

This, therefore, suggests that the nature and quality of democratic politics matters to either energise the public programmes for children in some states, or enervate the same in others. In other words, India is ‘differently democratic’ and hence its children are ‘differently developed’.

What we need to debate

In making a spirited argument in favour of public solution to childcare deficiencies, we need, however, to revert back to the first-order question: what is our collective imagination about a fitting and fair start in the life of a child, irrespective of her caste, class or community background? This is a question that we need to debate in the public sphere, and not just in the isolated corner of the household, since it is public (mis)understanding that shapes private choice.

For example, there is a growing perception among most of us that the sooner we start getting our children ready for school, the earlier we teach them alphabets and numbers, the quicker we immerse them in English language training, the better. We have met very young children who are enrolled in more than one pre-school – for example, in an anganwadi as well as in a low-cost private pre-school. On top of that, some are going for private tuition at a very young age. This seems to be a class-invariant phenomenon, although the quality of ‘sustenance’ varies according to shortage or surfeit in family wherewithal.

It is time, therefore, to ask what kind of school we are getting our children ready for – a regimented drill centre that focuses on parrot-training and examination success or a ‘democratic school’ that cultivates the freedom of the mind of the child and her ability to empathise with others?

Homogenisation of concepts of childhood

Similarly, a nagging concern keeps breaking into the discourse on childcare and development about whether in the name of advocating some basic and universal rights for all children, we fall into the trap of ‘essentialising’ childhood itself – a childhood apparently modelled after a quintessentially western vision.

No doubt, there are culturally diverse meanings of childhood within our country itself, let alone without. And there is no compelling reason to coercively homogenise these plural imaginations of what it feels and means to be a child. For example, in a pre-school classroom in a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Kolkata, the small children were greatly enjoying a session in which they were being taught through audio-visual aid names of fruits and vegetables, mostly in English. When they were shown an image of broccoli, quite a few of them identified it as a ‘tree’. Two issues came to mind: one, their imagination was not quite wrong; two, how essential and apt it was to make them, at this very young age of their life, get the idea of broccoli that they most probably had not yet seen or eaten. Learning is of course a mix of the known and the unknown, but it is important to carefully calibrate that mixture in an age-appropriate and culturally fitting manner.

And yet, once the concerns of ‘essentialisation’ and homogenisation of concepts of childhood are taken into consideration, what still persist are overriding social tasks to equalise basic social opportunities for all children so that they can enjoy a decent and cheerful childhood, irrespective of their unequal social conditions.

A recently published account of a member of a manual scavenger family, for example, laid bare in distressing detail what it meant for him to grow up as a child of a household that was assigned to this role by a society that still functions on a principle of what B.R. Ambedkar described as ‘graded inequality’. It is a civilisational challenge before us to debate whether any child, or any adult, should be consigned to such a life, no matter what the cultural or contextual specificities are. These deeper questions about children’s development and learning yell out for political, policy, and public attention. India’s children deserve more attention.

Manabi Majumdar is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and Pratichi Institute, Kolkata.