Staff, fund cuts hamstring 1098 services in TN

Significantly, within each unit, the number of personnel available for field visits has been halved, according to staff working in the units.
Image used for representational purposes only
Image used for representational purposes only

CHENNAI: The quality of intervention provided through the Child Helpline 1098 has noticeably declined since the state government took over its functioning in August 2023, child rights activists and staff at the helpline have said. The TN government’s takeover was mandated by the new Standard Operating Procedures released by the union government.

The staff and activists attributed the decline in quality of services to the reduction of staff and funds. Post takeover, there are only 425 staffers, a fall of 34%. Before the takeover, there were 642 staff working in helpline units in districts, sub centres, and help desks at select bus stands and railway stations across Tamil Nadu.

Significantly, within each unit, the number of personnel available for field visits has been halved, according to staff working in the units.

For instance, each unit at the district level now has a project coordinator, a counsellor, three to four child helpline supervisors and three to four case workers. The case workers are now the only ones who make field visits. Earlier, each unit had an additional four volunteers who were also available to work in the field.

A child helpline worker said the reduction of staff has become a major impediment to the service’s ability to attend to cases immediately, especially in larger districts. A child rights activist, who recently called the helpline from a railway station in Chennai to support an abandoned child, said he had to wait with the child for close to five hours before the helpline staff were able to intervene. In the last nine months, the state, on an average, has handled close to 24,000 calls each month.

Sub centres in rural areas not functional

While releasing the revised SOP for the takeover of helpline, the union government had said that the response time would reduce to 30 minutes. Until last year, the 1098 helpline, fully funded by the union government, was run by the Childline India Foundation in association with other partner NGOs.

The new SOP was criticised as it fixed the staff strength based on the children’s population as per 2011 Census and without taking into consideration the volume of cases or complaints related to child marriages in the respective districts.

After the implementation of new SOP, helpline staff said the sub centres within districts, which helped them to quickly reach children in remote parts of the district, are no longer functional. A district project coordinator said it has become difficult for them to send a lone staff to interior parts of the district.

Besides staff, budgets for provisions like child-related contingency funds (including costs for medical care, shelter, restoration and nutrition among others) and travel expenses of the staff, which were earlier around Rs 2 lakh per annum per unit, have been cut by half.

A staff at one of the units said they now have to spend out of their pockets and await reimbursement, which is often delayed. The funds allocated for creating awareness about 1098 has also been reduced, which, staff feared, can eventually lead to a reduction in the number of children reaching out to the helpline.

Meanwhile, the staff still struggle with the meagre salary of Rs 8,000 to Rs 14,000 per month depending on their role, contrary to the range of Rs 11,000 to Rs 27,800 promised in the new SOP.

When contacted, a senior official from the state government refuted allegations of any decline in quality of service and said they have not received any complaints. The official added that the state ranked second in terms of the volume of calls handled. “We are planning to open centres at the block level. Discussions with the union government are underway,” said the official.

A Devaneyan, director of Thozhamai Trust, working for child rights, said the union government should take corrective measures to address problem. “If the staff are running from pillar to post to get the travel allowance, how can they work for children? The staff should be regularised and civil society organisations working for the children should be involved in the process,” he said.

24,000 In the last 9 months, TN has handled an average of 24K calls a month

GoI mandated takeover

As mandated by the union government’s new SOP, TN took over functioning of the helpline aimed at children in distress in August 2023. Since then the number of staff has declined by 34%

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