SANDHYA SOMAN / TNN January 29, 2012
When Vidya Reddy’s car got hit by a speeding motorbike in a bylane in Chennai, she was upset. The car was new, but the errant bike driver was a 14-year-old, who pleaded with her to let him go this one time. Reddy took the matter to the police and was shocked when she heard the child’s father wonder how his son could’ve lost control as “he is a good driver.” The child rights activist was at a loss to explain to the father that what his son did was criminal. Even more galling was telling him that as a parent, he too was guilty of criminal neglect by encouraging the child to drive, when the law prohibited it.
Experts say while the legal system doesn’t have child-friendly procedures, the welfare committees set up by various states are understaffed and ill-equipped to handle cases of neglect and abuse, especially if the perpetrators are parents.”We look at neglect only through the prism of poverty. Children from wealthy families are also neglected but that is never taken into account,” says Reddy, who runs Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. The furore over the decision of Norwegian authorities to separate two Indian children from their parents citing neglect has still not died down. But there is nothing to write home about India’s child protection system either. Teachers at fancy kindergartens don’t know what to do when four-year-olds come with lunch boxes with the previous day’s food. And nobody raises an eyebrow when minivans and autorickshaws, packed to the brim with school children, speed through cities.
India, with nearly 420 million children, has its share of child protection laws under the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000. Though the Act still uses the same legal system that is designed to try adult criminals, it stipulates that each district should set up a child welfare committee (CWC). But there is no strict method to select committee members, says Reddy.
Most of the committees don’t meet regularly and has members who hold other jobs to handle the highly complex area of child rights, she says. They are assisted by probation officers with not much skill in tracing the background of children in conflict with law or interviewing minors who have been sexually abused. Most CWCs are overwhelmed by the number and scale of cases, says Shantha Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. “Many cases go unreported. This is because CWCs have limited infrastructure and manpower though the law gives them full authority,” she says.
If there is a complaint of violence against a child’s family, the CWC should have a panel of psychologists to assess the situation and give a report. “You have to do it without traumatising the child. But many CWCs don’t have the facilities,” says Sinha. More worrying is the blind spot that authorities have towards neglect by parents from affluent backgrounds. The chairperson of Chennai’s childwelfare committee, P Manorama says she hasn’t come across a case of neglect from children belonging to affluent families. “Such instances are more visible in middle and lower socio-economic strata,” she says.
With many heads of child rights committees having such fixed ideas, it is imperative to pass the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill, 2010, say experts. “The bill has several sections on child-friendly procedures and child jurisprudence that will make a change in the judicial system that is designed to try adult criminals,” says Sinha.