Statistics show that today, India has the largest population of children it has ever had - 40 per cent of the overall population are below the age of 18. Of the estimated 415 million children, about 200 million are marginalised children. That is the country we live in.
Dealing with these statistics is the Childline India Foundation whose helpline - 1098 - receives an annual three million calls. A major block of these calls come from children between the age group of 11 to 14, with the most common complaint being about healthcare. While neglected children and victims of child abuse have unfortunately become a common incidence, what is alarming is the rapid rise of juvenile delinquency or youth crime. While statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau in 2010 put Madhya Pradesh ahead with 6028 cases of arrest, Andhra Pradesh though at the lower end with 1863 cases, is still a bad case in point.
Talking about the rate of crime in the state, Philip Isadore, director of Divya Disha, a non-governmental organisation, says, “Teen crime is a reality we must face. There has been an alarming rise in the number of children who have been resorting to it. The most common cases are those of theft which range from phone snatching to jewellery thefts. What is more alarming is the fact that more and more of these kids are recruited by gangs as compared to acting on their own for livelihood.” Other forms of delinquency include riots, cheating, dacoity, attempted murder and murder.
Understanding the problem
The incidence of these cases is not new. Teen crime has always been an issue. However, there has been an attempt at understanding and dealing with the issue only of late with the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children Act) that came in 1986 and was amended in 2000. Under this Act, a child is described as an individual within the age of 18. Nevertheless, the Act is incomplete and doesn’t cater to the real issues that drive children to crime.
Pointing out that the fabric of our society has changed drastically over the last 20 years, Nishit Kumar, head of communications and strategic initiatives at Childline, says, “The economy is the driving force. The services sector went through this huge boom that was primarily urban-centric. Other sectors faded in comparison, especially agriculture. With that, there came this huge dearth of basic skilled labour. Children started dropping out of school and were forced into labour either directly or indirectly. That trend has continued to become a form of reality.”
With economic instability becoming a treacherous see-saw, child abuse has become an off-shoot problem, along with delinquency. Nishit who works more with cases of child abuse, explains, “Children are more and more being neglected by their parents. That has led to children not trusting their parents at all. While trying to make them aware of inappropriate touching, we encouraged children to write down in a book who they trusted the most so they could talk to that person. It’s very common to find children who say they trust their dog more than their parents.”
The logistical side
With an increased reporting of the issue and society being more open than it used to be, the sensitivity to the issue has been marginally better. However, while on an ideological level everyone is pro-child protection, the truth of the matter is that it gets lost in translation to that of a concrete system that protects children from losing their childhood.
“Infrastructure is the single most decapitating aspect,” points out Nishit. Agreeing Isadore says, “In Hyderabad, there aren’t many shelters that cater to a child needs. The issue here is very way in which the child is treated. If a child is convicted, they’re treated as a criminal and sent to a correctional school. But that isn’t the solution. Infrastructure includes proper healthcare, counsellors and psychiatrists.”
Pointing out that the juvenile justice system is looked at as a police matter, Isadore adds, “There is a huge gap in the response mechanism to juvenile delinquency. The first step is to understand the child’s needs. There has to be a change in the societal mindset. The sector is starved and we need to move fast to ensure that we do not lose more children.”