For Pinky's (name changed) mother, the joy of her being able to finally walk, after months of prayers, turned into her worst nightmare. Three months shy of turning 2, Pinky went missing not far from her home in the Gandhi Nagar locality of the national capital two weeks ago. When she was eventually found, the toddler had been sexually abused by a neighbour. Pinky's mother who was away at work and father at his tea stall, which is located near their house, did not fathom the risk their child faced even when her father who watched her, had left the tea stall for barely five minutes.
It is imperative for governments to understand and identify risks [to children left without supervision], and adopt preventive measures such as making crèches universally available.
Cases such as these aren't new and nor are they uncommon. A basic search on the internet with the keywords "missing children" and "India" will pull up hundreds of news reports on incidents of children of all age groups who went missing in the last decade—some fortunate enough to be found alive, some who remain untraced and some who lost their lives. The situation is as alarming now as it was years ago. In response to a parliamentary question in December last year, the Ministry of WCD released statistics according to which 1,35,484 children in India were missing as of 2015, out of which only 34% were traced in the year.
What children like Pinky are deprived of—adequate care and supervision—is one of the major reasons why children go missing, especially in urban settings. The upward trend of urbanisation continues, with the population in slums on the rise. According to Census 2011, there are 13.9 million slum households in the country, an increase of almost 70% from a decade earlier. Unlike in rural setups, communities in urban slums are not homogenous units and constitute mostly of migrant populations. Families where both parents are working, likely in informal sectors, are often struggling to make ends meet and cannot afford even the cheapest daycare. Children are thus left to fend for themselves at home and exposed to all kinds of dangers.
In scenarios as prevalent as these, recognising the risks that the child might face becomes essential. But even if parents are aware of the risks, they have no choice but to work in order to put food on the table. Thus it is imperative for governments to understand and identify these risks, and adopt preventive measures such as making crèches universally available, so children are less vulnerable. The government's assessment and realisation of the importance of crèches can be gauged with the fact that Acts and schemes over the years (like the Factories Act 1948, NREGA and many others) had provisions of crèche facilities. Yet despite the acknowledgement of the need for crèches and daycare facilities, their availability to children remains limited.
In the 2015-16 Budget, the Delhi government had allocated funds for 300 Aanganwadis-cum-crèches, but so far only 23 have opened—clearly, they are not a priority for the government.
Under the restructured ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) the government proposed that Aanganwadi centres would double up as crèches for children under the age of 6. This, however, seems to be an area of low priority for governments. Take the example of the national capital, which is one of the top four states in India in numbers of children who go missing. In the 2015-16 Budget, the Delhi government had allocated funds for 300 Aanganwadis-cum-crèches, but so far only 23 have opened—clearly, they are not a priority for the government.
Another national scheme, the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Yojana, which was started in 2009 to provide crèche facilities for children of working mothers, is also limited in its reach, further reinforcing how this is not an area of focus for the government.
A recent study of 1220 households with children under the age of six in the capital's 11 districts revealed that 47% of the children living in slums and resettlement colonies of Delhi are alone when the parents are out for work. It is sobering to know that on an average, 19 children go missing in the national capital every day.
The situation needs to be treated with utter urgency. The government must ensure care facilities are provided to every last child along with a strengthening of reactive enforcement. Apart from this, the community also has to be sensitised to take preventive action. Community and youth groups formed to identify situations and people who might be a risk to children's safety have proved to be very efficient in risk-aversion, as we have experienced in CRY's project interventions. Raising awareness within these communities about the possible risks children face is an essential first step which the government must ensure.
While the budgetary allocation for child protection has increased, the government needs to invest more in schemes for the age group of 0-6, as the aim of universal care for these children has to be non-negotiable.