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Sreelatha Menon: Alienation of Chacha

A new book scans the gulf between the state and the child in terms of policies and their impact

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

The history of the child and his rights from the time of independence to now is a long and harsh slide down, from the arms of a protective state to a situation where the state’s concerns end with legislation addressed to children.

This slide in the child-state relationship from the painful womb of partition to the present is documented by social scientist Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan in a new book called Growing Up and Away, Narratives of Indian Childhoods Memory, History, Identity, published by Oxford University Press.

Here is an example of what the state meant for the child in the first break of dawn in independent India in 1947.

The state was busy finding children who were abandoned by fleeing parents, children who were orphaned in violence, children who were born to abducted women. The unspeakable pain of the children of partition and their guardianship the state assumed for itself don’t reflect today in the various laws and policies, which are divorced from concerns about the child.

Back in the 40s and 50s, the state was the surrogate parent. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, known to children of free India as Chacha Nehru, actually symbolised the state itself and its relationship to the countless orphaned and abandoned children, as the author says throughout the book.

Nehru is quoted as saying that there was no orphan in the country, as the state was parent to every child.

Can the same be said today of the abandoned and lost children? The book does not focus on abandoned children but on children in general, and arrives at the same conclusion that the Chacha (read the state) has alienated himself/(itself) from the children. However, the data on lost children in the metros alone, (according to National Crime Records Bureau, 34,000 were missing in Delhi in 20 years) underlines the fact that merely having laws for juvenile justice, for right to education and now right to food, don’t alter the situation the child is growing up in.

The author cites the various policies that impact adults, but go on to marginalise the existence of the children, whether it is consolidation of land for infrastructure projects, or dilution of labour laws (for adults) or even anti-terrorism laws.

The seeds for this indifference could be in the separation that happened between the political leaders engaged in ‘nation-building’ under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and those engaged in social reform at the time of freedom, as agents of Mahatma Gandhi. It was a separation of Chacha from Bapu.

The author does not say so.

But, she gives evidence to show that social workers separated from the state often fail. She cites the example of Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) for pre-school children run by NGOs, in partnership with the state in some places, and how the community looks at it as a private venture and not as an entitlement. And, without her saying so, it is also obvious that political workers separated from a social agenda fail equally well as shown from not only from the state of the child (malnutrition, dysfunctional ICDS, and even the soulless government education system), but also from the popular anger against the political class as seen in recent times.

So, how can Chacha or the guardianship of the state become a reality?

The book asks for viewing the child not just as a category based on age and family situation, but within the social and political context of the child. It also asks to draft all laws with the eyes of a parent.

The state as guardian would thus mean an expansion in focus and reviewing laws in general. All policies together create the context for today’s child. Unless the contexts are altered, the status quo, as Balakrishnan says, would continue.

First Published: Sun, January 08 2012. 00:47 IST