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Born to penury

Access to education, Child Labour

Children living in slums are among the least likely to attend school, says UNICEF’s latest report

Aphorisms we have been inured to from lore and literature such as child is the father of the man and a babe is always a bundle of joy uphold the dignity and pristine innocence of children the world over. But as urbanisation has spread far and wide, the attendant ramifications are ravaging to say the least to children of lesser means and least luck to state the truth in all its jarring reality. This is what has been captured with clarity and solemnity in the State of the World’s Children 2012 of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released recently.

The Unicef Executive Director Mr. Anthony Lake was not exaggerating when he said in the foreword to the report that hundreds of millions of children living in urban slums without access to basic services are vulnerable to risks “ranging from violence and exploitation to the injuries, illnesses and death that result from living in crowded settlements atop hazardous rubbish dumps or alongside railroad tracks”.

One need not look elsewhere to understand this ugly underbelly as one travels in the swanky Delhi Metros elevated track between the Pragati Maidan and Indraprashad xxxx stretch, one can see behind the stately WHO office the abject state of existence by legions of slum dwellers. No wonder, he bemoans that from Ghana and Kenya to Bangladesh and India, children living in slums are among the least likely to attend school with “scarcity and dispossession” afflicting “the poorest and most marginalized children and families disproportionately”.

The report cites a study of the National Family Health Survey in eight cities of India from 2005 to 2006 to demonstrate that levels of under-nutrition in urban areas continue to be very high. At least a quarter of urban children under five were stunted, indicating that they had been undernourished for sometime. A survey in Delhi found a primary school attendance rate of 54.5 per cent among children living in slums in 2004-05.

These are figures five to six years ago and the situation in the meanwhile had not mended as official figures for such people hardly exist since most of the slum dwellers get pampered only during elections to civil or assembly or national bodies and mostly left in the lurch to fend for themselves.

In this grim scenario, it is small consolation to know from Unicef India Representative Ms Karin Hulshof that India currently has an estimated urban population of 377 million and by 2026 it is expected that 40 per cent of the total populace will live in urban areas. Her observation that a child growing up in an urban poor milieu has challenges akin to ones being faced by a child in rural India when it comes to her/his health, nutrition, access to water and sanitation, education and protection does not need any solid evidence as one can understand this from a mere glance at these unfortunate brats for no fault of theirs other than being born to penury! Unicef reckons that as much as 97 million people live in one of the nearly 50,000 slums across India.

What is a matter of grave concern is that as greater urbanisation gets entrenched, the report foresees that in a few years majority of children would grow up in towns or cities rather than in rural areas. Globally, children born in cities already account for 60 per cent of the increase in urban population and with opportunities in rural and hinterlands becoming too sparse, the migration for eking a better livelihood in cities or semi-urban towns would only compound the problems plaguing the urban poor in general and the urban children in particular.

So it does not come as too rude a shock when the report estimates that 2.5 million people worldwide have been trafficked into forced labour. Of this, some 22 to 50 per cent of trafficking victims are children. Even in the absence of trafficking, many children are forced to work in order to survive. Thus around the world, an estimated 215 million boys and girls aged 5-17 were engaged in child labour in 2008, 115 million of them in hazardous work. This is despite the sanctimonious declaration by many countries that they had signed the convention against child labour and that they had abolished such callous work being wrested from children. Moradabad, Mumbai, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu readily come to mind for such sordid practices even in emerging economies like India, not to speak of the countless children being employed in roadside dabas, cafeteria within the country elsewhere even today.

It can be said to the credit of Unicef that its best intentions and good practices to rid the scourge of exploiting innocent children under obnoxious conditions is appreciable. But, most of the UN member countries do not take up the plight of these pathetic children to ameliorate their lot in any meaningful manner to bring a shaft of light to these unfortunate ones. It is time Indian authorities addressed the unequal access to basic services for children growing up in slums across the nation, without constantly touting up high economic growth mantra to solve all problems—distribution of fruits of growth eventually need to be ensured only by the government with a conscience!

The Hindu, 07 March 2012

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