New Zealand keeps getting left off the world maps and their tourism ministry, their Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, comic Rhys Darby and the world wide web is all abuzz. One cheeky advertisement is trying to fix that.
Something much worse is happening in India. Children are falling off the map of care and concern. Going by the spate of news of minors being raped/abused in India (some even younger than 8 years), child protection needs to be on the priority map, not just of the state, but the society’s too. Topping up Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) with the death penalty is not the only response! Strengthening the implementation of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) could be a better and more apt response.
Enacted in 2006 and revised in 2017, the ICPS is based on the cardinal principles of ‘protection of child rights’ and ‘best interest of the child’. The scheme is housed in the ministry of women and child development and aimed to improve the well-being of children in difficult circumstances, as well as to help prevent abuse, neglect, exploitation, abandonment and separation of children from their families. It is supposed to set up a national grid of care and protection for children from birth to 18 years.
And post 2009, there has been much progress. Most states have set up the state-wide grid of ICPS and activated it across all districts and sub-district levels. But inadequate budget, human resources and temporary staffing for a permanent agenda like child protection continue to pose a challenge. This also mandates close collaboration between the state and non-state actors i.e. NGOs to set up and manage the care-homes, institutions where children from difficult circumstances and abandoned children are looked after.
One of the states putting ICPS front and centre is Odisha. It has made ICPS its own via an adapted version of the scheme called Biju Sishu Suraksha Yojana. It is activated across the state with 30 District Child Protection Officers (DCPOs) across all 30 districts as part of the District Magistrate’s core team. These DCPOs also have a reporting relationship with the state’s line ministry i.e. Women and Child Development. Yet this architecture has a fundamental flaw. It goes up from the gram panchayat (GP) level to block, district till state directorate level, but the last mile connectivity i.e. from GP to village is missing.
Keonjhar is one of the larger districts of Odisha with 13 blocks and 287 gram panchayats. It is also the ground-zero of base metal deposits of the country. And like any resource-rich site where the extractive industry is the primary economy, it suffers from resource curse too, which is often the case.
Saharpada block is one of the furthest from the district headquarters and poses its own challenge of access. But it has some of the most vibrant child protection committees in the villages. These committees focus on manifesting on ground the four cardinal principles:
These committees do this via 15 member bodies comprising of self-selected mothers, community members from the village self-help groups, the village-level health worker i.e. ASHA (Auxiliary Social Health Activist), Anganwadi workers, local primary school teacher and select children from the local child clubs. From Sialijodi, Khadibeda Sahi to Suna Poshi, village after village in Saharpada block not only knows their United Nations’ Child Rights Convention, but also their entitlements under the national Integrated Child Development Scheme, the flagship programme of the country.
From ensuring all children are protected and looked after, even those whose parents are out working in different districts, to ensuring healthcare enrollment, immunisation, pre-school and school enrollment to fostering an eco-system of participation of the children in all village-level processes, these committees are a crash course in active citizenship. They have also expanded the mandate of protection, from surviving at the margins to thriving with full life chances. These committees meet every fortnight and try to foster smarter, stronger and kinder children together. This is a welcome socialisation for the mothers and the younger siblings of the children who are members of the committees too. They advocate with the GP-based child protection committee, the block and the district-level committee and the district-level officer too. Sometimes they serve as the eyes and ears on child protection issues for the administration.
Their biggest advocacy win has been getting Anganwadi Centres in hamlets which are much smaller than regular revenue villages (of 1,000 population) in keeping with the Supreme Court’s order to open Anganwadi Centres in habitations of marginalised population on priority.
While an in-depth impact study of the village level child protection committee is yet to be undertaken, the ASHA and Anganwadi registers show impressive immunisation performance. The primary school teachers across the three villages this author visited showed their triumphant registers displaying no drop-outs.
For some perspective, Saharpada is a tribal majority forested block where chances of out-migration are high and so is children drop-out from schools, Anganwadi Centres and immunisation grids.
A rigorous study would help in not just mapping the impact of village-level child protection committees and also making a case for scaling up the model in other blocks and districts.
Why Saharpada, you would ask, and pat comes the reply from Dipti Ranjan Mohanty, the project coordinator of CYSD: “It is far from the district headquarters and hence poses its unique challenge of access. We wanted to build a successful model which factors that distance. This is also an atypical block since it is a non-mining block, hence the additional resources coming for off-setting the resource curse of the mining-affected blocks are also absent here.”
Devangana Barik, the district child protection officer, has a nuanced take on programming challenges in a vast mining district with mining and non-mining blocks. She feels the issues remain the same i.e. child labour, trafficking, abandonment of children (especially in early childhood) and lack of creche care for working women. Be it women working in mines, in forests collecting minor forest produce/non-timber forest produce (NTFP), in the fields or brick kilns, care for their children when the mothers are away is non-negotiable. Hence, irrespective of the fact if the block is a mining or non-mining block, the structures for protection that respond to all forms of vulnerabilities remain.
Jagadanand, founder-member of CYSD, a leading member of the global civil society movement (and currently a sitting member of the Odisha state planning board), feels that while state structures are there, the lack of sensitisation among the frontline staff gives a lot of opportunity for collaboration between the state and non-state actors. But the acute human resource shortage, especially in challenging locales like the blocks with tribal population, Dalit population, is a cause of concern.
The inadequate HR is an Achilles’ heel for progressive government services, unless addressed in time. That, across India, postings in districts with marginalised population is considered a punishment posting is a problem. They need to be converted to incentives, motivations for young officers to learn and practice, he adds.
But Ashish Thakare, the current district magistrate, a 2011-batch IAS officer, still inspired and hopeful (and trained in journalism from the ace Asian College of Journalism, hence sensitive to the importance of the state and the fourth estate engagements), is actually a motivated young man who does have a vision.
He feels that while resource curse is a reality, the District Mining Foundation provides an opportunity to amp up the ambition to actually implement child development in letter and spirit with a complete life-cycle approach, care through pregnancy, delivery, immunisation, early childhood, to adolescence and skills training post-adolescence. We need to ensure all the programmes cohere, they talk to each other and deliver and that the citizens/beneficiaries do not fall through the cracks, he explains.
And that is the hope and challenge for child protection too!
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of ICFJ Washington DC in reporting this story.
The author can be reached at email@example.com