The Open is No Place for India’s Children to Go

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So we sent a satellite to the moon, for the purpose of scientific discovery. And two children in Shivpuri to wherever the dead go, for the purpose of…what exactly? That we can build, at huge expense, satellites and not toilets, that we can send unmanned missions to the great outer and humans to the great unknown is a tragic paradox that marks 21st century India. No, we are not downplaying the achievement of the former – far from it, we, like everybody else, are proud that despite pronouncements about ancient science, ISRO and the rest keep pace with contemporary global scientific temper. But it is also not possible to frame this scientific project outside the primitive logic of witch-hunts, molestation and child-killings that haunts ‘modern’ India.

Anup Dutta termed it ‘horrific’ in an understatement, surely, and described it as an incident with no parallels, in these very pages. We have had reasons to think of the child victim before, again in these pages. What is it that makes the Shivpuri victims something more than victims of maniacal caste-obsessed men in a system that empowers the latter to an extent that they determine who can live and who can die?

There are, over and above Dutta’s fine piece, more things to be said.

There is a clear moral discourse of suffering that we can bring to bear on Roshni and Avinash’s trauma and eventual death. Vulnerable people, such as children, have been rendered helpless. Too young to mobilise their vulnerability – of which the extreme example would be the child soldier – for political purposes, they fall prey to larger political purposes: the maintenance by some, of caste-determined social behaviour and practices.


A discourse of social justice

But more importantly, there has to be a political discourse of social justice here. Children are persons too, and as such, entitled to not only justice but also protection. Yes, this hinges on essentialising children as both vulnerable and innocent, but would we rather see them as intentionally, mischievously and consciously violating a social code in a condition where no facilities such as toilets exist? Are we making a case for deviant behaviour in a context where the children do not know any other practice except defecating in the open?

A discourse of social justice that engages with not just internal (‘national’) matters like caste but also global conventions about child security and welfare is indispensable. It is not sufficient to say it is an internal matter. At one point in history, ‘internal’ ideals and goals such as freedom, self-determination, democracy and equality adapted from global doctrines, the commonwealth of ideas and international movements – from the French Revolution to Abolitionism – drove our best intellectuals, freedom fighters and activists, as disparate as Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. ‘Our’ social justice movements were always inspired by global initiatives as well: note that, for instance, Ambedkar in his works cites Marx, Dewey, Burke and the African American campaign for racial equality; Gandhi’s inspiration from Thoreau, Ruskin, etc, and Jotiba Phule links his Ghulamgiri to African American slavery.

So what do the world’s conventions, rules and norms say about children’s safety and welfare? I turn to just two.

A key document, No Place for Children by Human Rights Watch (2012), examined the life of child soldiers in Somalia. Noting how boys and girls were forced into specific activities, from actual fighting to forced marriage, the document declared that “there remains no accountability in Somalia for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”. It then states:

“There is no easy solution to the dire reality facing Somali children, many of whom have known nothing but war. But parties to the conflict and other key actors involved in Somalia should begin to prioritize the issue of children’s rights, child protection, and education on the political and security agenda. The risks of continuing to fail to protect and provide safe and accessible education to Somalia’s children will result in yet another generation lost to conflict, with few options for the future.”

If we substitute the names of places with Indian ones and ‘war’ with ‘want’, ‘conflict’ with ‘caste’ or ‘poverty’, that paragraph sums up Shivpuri.

The UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, adopted by the UN in 1989) says:

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

It continues (under Article 3):

“States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.

States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.”

India ratified the UNCRC in 1992. If we take just the above directives from Article 3 of the UNCRC, we can see that not only have we been wilfully ignorant of these basic norms but have set out to develop a parallel set of norms where we take the battle to retain social (caste) privileges to the children.

Have we as a nation failed our children?

Now it is likely we stop UN intervention or reject international criticism about such incidents by claiming it is an ‘internal’ matter. But the larger question remains unanswered: when the social contract that says a state protects its citizens is violated, what options are open to them? Especially when these citizens are both vulnerable and helpless? So have we as a nation failed our Avinashes and Roshnis? Yes. Even if we, in a fit of absence of mind, ignore the ‘caste factor’, ‘Shivpuri’ connects to children in match-and-firecracker factories, trafficking and other forms of hazardous (and non-hazardous) labour, from domestic ‘helpers’ to ‘assistants’ at mechanics’ workshops.

We cannot, also, see the embodiment of the ‘modern’ (such as high-tech) as disjunct from the natural phenomena (such as drought) and the discourses around these (such as ‘progress’ or ‘development’).

The so-called distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘non-modern’ does not really exist because each draws upon the other. Our sense of ‘mission accomplished’ in terms of sanitation or hygiene is entangled with natural conditions such as the drying up of rivers, the social contexts of caste-based discrimination (manual scavenging is a ‘modern’ mode of sanitation, is it? Ha), and complete denial of conventions and discourses aimed at protecting the child. Nature (including biology) and society are co-produced (as Bruno Latour would argue in We Have Never Been Modern) and so advances in technology cannot be severed from either natural conditions or social contexts, including caste, gender and age.

Courtesy The wire…


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