The Wrong Side Of The Tracks
on Cowboys and Indians (India), 22/Feb/2011 06:53, 34 days ago
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On a recent trip to Kolkata I spent a couple of hours sat on a train outside Howrah Junction, one of the city’s main stations, waiting for a platform to become free. These kinds of delays are a regular occurrence in India, and each time a train stops groups of children who live alongside the railway tracks jump onboard to try to earn a few rupees from the passengers by sweeping the carriages, singing andbusking or simply begging.The children I saw were no older than eight or nine, but I should probably count myself lucky that they weren’t any younger. In one casereported by Times of India last month, a seven-month old baby boy was found abandoned onboard a train headed for Howrah– and the man who found him was told to keep him.That’s right – its finders-keepers on children in India, with railway officials refusing to even make loudspeaker announcements and the police attempting to locate parents who may well not want to be located. It makes you wonder whether the many children in India who have to fend for themselves haveanyone looking out for them at all.Cities like Kolkata have particularly high numbers of street children due to increasing urban populations and rural-urban migration. In Kolkata’s slums, large numbers of people live without access to basic services such as sanitation, safe drinking water, shelter and education. With or without parental care many children end up in bus-stands, railways stations, markets and roadside pavements. They often fall into hazardous forms of workincluding begging and rag-picking and are at risk of becoming victims of trafficking.Although the Indian government has expressed concern for the welfare of these children, there remain serious doubts over whether they have the capability to deal with the number of children who don’t live with their parents, or who do but still need an income to survive. The estimates of how many children there are working in India varies from the official statistic of 12.6 million to a figure of at least 50 million used by many human-rights groups. Nevertheless, in recent years the government has taken several steps towards outlawing child labour. In 2006 they extended bans on children working in dangerous professions to cover households and the hospitality industry, and in 2009 they introduced their biggest legislative effort yet: the Integrated Child Protection Scheme.The scheme has grand plans, and in places like Kolkata it should theoretically facilitate the opening of shelters where children could spend their time in a safe environment. Their basic health and shelter requirements would be met and vocational training could also be provided. The scheme also aims to encourage sponsorship, foster care and adoption with the aim of keeping as many children as possible within families. As Sujata Mohanty, Project Director of the Taskforce on Alternative Child Care, said at a recent district level consultation on the Scheme in Orissa:“All children have a right to a family.” She added: “Institutionalisation should be the last resort.”The Taskforce on Alternative Child Care is just one of the civil society agencies to whom the government has delegated much of the vast task of actually implementing their scheme. This multiplicity of actors could prove to be the scheme’s biggest weakness. As with the railway officials who said thatthe missing boy was“not their concern”, the fact that there are so many agencies and government bodies involved makes it easy for people to pass the buck on difficult cases– because in the end nobody wants to be left holding the baby.