Prickly-issues

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Child foeticide is a crime that seems to have taken centre stage on the women and child development front but there are other critical issues that plague the ministry

ABID SHAH

ABID SHAH

Abid Shah is a joint editor of parliamentarian. He is a journalist with over 30 years of experience in working with various publications.

A prominent lady lawyer from Delhi laments in a newspaper article printed only a few days ago that India and China eliminate no less than 1.5 million girls a year before their birth. She goes on to remark that sex ratio, or a number of girl children born for 1,000 boys born, as per registration survey data has gone down from 909 to 900 girls during the period 2011-15.

This poses the gravest challenge to not only the government and its Ministry of Women and Child Development run by Maneka Gandhi but also before the society or for that matter each and every Indian who or whose forebears had once solemnly resolved to turn the country into a republic for the sake of dignity, safety and well-being of every citizen whether man or woman.

Moreover, it points to further deterioration in the discrimination faced by women right from their girlhood. This has now, indeed, gone down to the level where girls are not even allowed to be born. And it is more so in urban areas than rural parts of the country. The roots of this are deep-set in evils like dowry and other social mores where birth of a girl is thought to be an inauspicious burden and that of boy a good omen for he can turn out to be a bread-earner on the one hand and abuse of technology – pre-natal sex determination on the other which is now more easily available.

But what is common among the two is greed. This is so because we have more private medical colleges where to become a doctor one has to pay a fortune in the hope to make quick and easy money by entering an otherwise noble profession.

Misogyny Mania

So privatisation of education and health care that cost heavily is giving way to their merchandising where the birth of a girl can easily be anticipated, spotted and aborted for a consideration, which is thought to be as normal as a fee. This is beside the fact that degree and dowry are closely linked and both favour men more than women given the way the minds of the people through better part of the country is afflicted by chronic misogyny.

There is no doubt that the present government that took over this month three years ago acknowledged this deep-rooted evil. But sadly it did not move much beyond catchy phrases or sloganeering like Beti-Bachao Beti-Padhao, or BBBP for short, meaning save-daughter teach-daughter, and campaigns like selfie-with-daughter started by no less a person than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He went to Panipat in Haryana in 2015 to launch his BBBP move since the sex ratio in Haryana was getting pathetically low besides elsewhere in the Hindi belt.

And yet, this is the same Modi who had said early on in his PMship that villagers should plant five trees at the birth of daughters so that when they grow up, these can be felled to pay for the wedding costs. And so the BBBP programme is as much a face-saving device as any other he has found to defend his misplaced policies.

Though sex ratio has now started looking up in the Haryana as also in neighbouring Punjab and Rajasthan besides the distant Maharashtra, many other states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Sikkim, Assam, Odisha and Karnataka are still lagging behind vis-à-vis number of female births.

The reason behind the change in Haryana is strict enforcement of PCPNDT Act or Pre-Conceptual and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994. Umpteen sting operations were reportedly resorted to in Haryana and also Rajasthan by state government officials, unlike in other parts of the country to bring out pre-birth sex determination tests and book the culprits.

Today, the Haryana government claims that the sex ratio is nearing the normal levels by touching 950, which are just two marks below the normal 952. Thus, to stem the rot mere persuasion through ads and digital BBBP campaigns that the Central Ministry of Women and Child Development advises and has embarked upon, hardly does any good, whereas stepped-up efforts to detect and prosecute cases under PCPNDT Act have proved to deter against rampant abortions of the female fetus.

Policy Symbolism

The central ministry supposed to address the issues arising from this covers all women and children, whose combined share in the population is over half the total number of people in the country. Thus, it touches more people than any other arm of the government. Yet, women and child development continues to be under a ministry which is confined to mainly policy making and exhorting various wings of the government cutting across both centre and the states.

It lacks in action and is thought to be rich only in symbolism and at best can resort to admonitions in times of contingency. Activists, more so who are into the battle for women and child rights say, that the Ministry generally wakes up when it come to tie over a crisis or to meet the requirements of commitments that the country or India often makes at international fora and passes or

amends laws.

If after December 2012, the laws and punishment dealing with rape underwent a change in the wake of the Nirbhaya case, today the government is making one-stop-centres for helping out women victims of crime. Thus, the need for amending the laws was not felt so strongly before brutality faced by Nirbhaya, point out activists. In fact, cases like Nirbhaya were taking place even before but this caught public imagination when it kicked off a media frenzy amid public outrage that aggravated each other and. Women have been victims of crime in the past too but the government woke up to their plight only after a Nirbhaya Fund with a corpus of Rs 1,000 crore was created in the 2013 Union Budget and ever since one-stop-centres for hapless women victims are coming up, which may still take some more time to cover the better or all parts of the country.

Registering Offenders

Another step to deter crime against women is the creation of sex offenders’ registry that the ministry has mooted. This is based on the model of certain western countries, including the US and UK, where a register ensures attendance of such offenders to report to police regularly and, in the case of the US, the public can access the register through websites. There are critics of this move because they feel that the offender gets precedence over the offence just because of a possibility of repeat of offence. It may prove marginally deterrent but this could well be negated by notoriety that the register may bring for the offender, say a few studies done in the US though its efficacy or lack of it back home is yet to be assessed and become visible.

If this is the case with the women and their safety vis-à-vis the steps taken by the ministry, the policies devised and being implemented to ensure and protect interests and rights of children are none too better. It is again the centre-state divide story, as per the child rights activists, when it comes to implementing ICDS, or Integrated Child Development Scheme, and enforcing ICPS, or Integrated Child Protection Scheme.

Enakshi Ganguli Thukral, an activist who runs a child rights centre called HAQ, has been arguing ever since the Union Budget was passed this year that the effective grant for children and schemes meant for them has declined. She had issued a statement in February soon after the Budget was out to make her point.

Not only this. Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015, that deals with both offences against children who may need care and children in conflict with law, there have also been shortcomings that often go up to the Supreme Court, points out lawyer Anant Asthana, reminding that once the apex court had chastised the central ministry by observing “this Ministry has no concern for children.”

Often, the centre or the ministry tries to wash its hands off by passing the buck to the states, says Asthana, adding that fines of up to Rs 25 000 have been slapped in the past by the highest court in cases where the Union of India was a party, which is represented mostly by the ministry in child related cases.

Sampurna Behra versus Union of India and Exploitation of Children in Orphanages of State of Tamil Nadu versus Union of India and Others are the prominent cases where the Supreme Court has passed important orders to ensure safety and protection of children in need of help. Yet, the ministry makes great fanfare about its moves like getting a law passed to ensure fair and humane adoption of children and creating an agency for this. Here too activists have a different point of view, as they see rising numbers of adoptions of children by parents other than their biological progenitors as a sign of weakness on the part of the state that may lead to trauma for children in some cases of adoption to say the least.

But the ministry thinks that the childline and railway childline opened by it can take care of children in distress by serving as helplines in the hour of need. Anybody can inform by calling a dedicated phone line to share any untoward ting about children who may be in trouble or to give information about missing children who may travel in trains. Activists point out that these lines are being run through NGOs as Ministry has virtually outsourced them to voluntary organisations and some of them may not be as responsible and answerable as government staff is supposed to be by virtue of being in control of the Ministry.

POSCO Issues

Another issue faced by children, mostly teenagers among them, is related to POCSO, or Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, Act, 2012. This is more so since the act does not recognise consent from a girl under 18 for consensual sex and thus many cases land up in court because of teenagers’ indiscretion amid lack of knowledge of the stringent law. And in case of an unforeseen pregnancy, the girl’s plight knows no end. A lawyer points out her folks are seldom ready to take back in their home, nor is the boy’s family is willing to take her under its care since he, or their ward, lands up in jail under the harsh provisions of the Act. The girl is left with no option but to go to state-run homes meant for minors needing care and protection which is available to them only until they turn 18.

So she like other teenagers living in these homes for may be any other reason is turned out in the big bad world again as soon as they attain 18 years of age. Courts have been asking the ministry to frame a policy to reduce the uncertainties faced by such 18 plus young people and a Mumbai lawyer has petitioned for this. He has framed a draft policy for reasonable treatment of such unfortunate young boys and girls who happen to be still in teens until turning 19 and submitted it in the court. The court has passed this on to the ministry, whose action is awaited.

Still worse is the plight of some of the prisoners’ children who are punished alongside their parents despite no fault of their own. Once a father or mother lands up in jail, their minor progenies suffer the most, say many criminal lawyers. They point out that the Delhi High Court has looked into this and the Delhi government has come up with a scheme for this. Yet, there is no intervention by the central ministry on this issue. The Delhi government’s scheme too is confined to the residents of Delhi alone and does not extend to the children of millions of economic migrants living in Delhi in case they fall foul of the law.

So, Shastri Bhavan mandarins of the ministry have to tackle a lot in the two remaining years of their tenure under Maneka Gandhi at the helm of as huge a task.

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