The state of children at any given point of time is a reflection of the past, present and future of the society in question. When children are not safe, healthy and happy, it is clear that society has failed them in the past, and is likely to fail them in the future too unless big changes are made.
I was interacting with a group of children who were recently rescued from trafficking, bonded labour and substance abuse at Mukti Ashram. One of them, Nathu*, told me that he had missed his mother for four years but never cried because he was afraid that he might be beaten up. There was another boy, Salim*, who was trafficked from Bangladesh eight years ago at the age of 7 and is now a drug addict. Salim's life has been horrifying and he has lost all hope to see his parents and younger sister, whom he loved the most.
There must be a holistic scheme for the economic, social and psychological rehabilitation of every survivor.
As he sat quietly watching me converse with Nathu, I asked him a simple question. "Do you want to see your sister and mother, again? And, do you want to be alive to see that day?"
He said he wanted to run away because he was feeling restless. The boy was facing terrible withdrawal symptoms. Such a response from a 15-year-old child was not new to me but it was still enough to make me feel dejected. I told Salim that he would not survive if he gave in to the craving. He risked dying on the streets and then perhaps his family might see his picture in the newspaper. I asked him if he wanted that or if he wanted them to see him alive? He broke down and pleaded, "I want to return home, alive, please."
These are the stories of millions of our children whose lost childhoods have to be restored now. Since my own childhood, I had a dream which later became the mission of my life and the core value of Bachpan Bachao Andolan. It was a very simple thought — every child should be free to be a child, free to laugh and cry, free to play and learn and above all, free to dream.
To accomplish this vision of a child-friendly world we need child-friendly politics, child-friendly businesses, child-friendly faith institutions and child-friendly justice delivery mechanisms and establishments. There must be a holistic scheme for the economic, social and psychological rehabilitation of every survivor. Rehabilitation must be approached in a three-pronged manner:
- First, adoption of a strategy for the individual development of the survivor. This can be realized by placing social protection programmes in place.
- Second, devising a humanitarian approach to build a deep and emotional connect to restore the sense of childhood and freedom.
- Third, the rehabilitation of children through a human-rights approach.
The journey from slavery to freedom can only be covered effectively if the standard operating procedures for the repatriation, re-integration and rehabilitation of missing and trafficked children are framed in this manner.
The creation of child-friendly court procedures is a preliminary requirement, followed by the speedy delivery of justice... There must also be proper and effective time-bound rehabilitation of survivors.
After 70 years of independence in India, we must ask ourselves whether we are truly committed to fulfilling the promises of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity made to India's citizens. These four pillars of our Constitution demonstrate a centuries-old value system which has existed in the country. However, when we talk of children like Salim and Nathu, I am forced to question the desire and commitment of society to the cause of poor and marginalized children. We cannot progress until this issue is resolved. Our success in other areas of democracy relies on the core values of the Constitution, since Justice is paramount and self-conclusive.
In my 36 years of struggle, I have placed the highest faith, trust and hope in the judiciary. The judiciary is not only the guardian of the Constitution but also the custodian of the cumulative moral conscience of a nation.
To reiterate this fact, my organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan organized a two-day workshop at the Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi, with the partnership of the All India Legal Aid Cell on Child Rights together with the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Delhi State Legal Services Authority. We have initiated the process to establish appropriate mechanisms for the rehabilitation and repatriation of children and to ensure the mainstreaming of child survivors into a safe and productive life. It was the highest level meeting on this subject so far, attended by the top judiciary (including the Chief Justice of India T S Thakur), senior bureaucrats and civil society leaders.
We can wait, politicians and faith leaders can also choose to wait; however, our children cannot because once their childhood is lost, it cannot be reclaimed.
I have been emphasizing child-friendly justice delivery systems for the past three-and-a-half decades. The creation of child-friendly court procedures is a preliminary requirement, followed by the speedy delivery of justice where the offenders are prosecuted and convicted in a time-bound manner. There must also be proper and effective time-bound rehabilitation of victims and survivors. This high-level meeting will play a crucial role in creating a robust child protection response mechanism.
Let's ACT together before it is too late. We need to bring Accountability at every level of operation, build a culture of Coordination, Connectivity and Convergence between all agencies and finally, enhance the use of Technology in tracking children, introducing bio-metric systems and installing CCTV cameras for proper surveillance and monitoring at public places.
The problem is that we can wait, politicians and faith leaders can also choose to wait; however, our children cannot because once their childhood is lost, it cannot be reclaimed.
I refuse to accept that we, the citizens of India, cannot ensure the constitutional values of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity to the last child. We have the compassion, capability and courage we need to make India a child-friendly nation.