By Karmanye Thadani:
We observed Children’s Day, the birthday of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (a man who loved children and was strongly committed to communal harmony and socioeconomic egalitarianism), as also National Education Day (11th November), the birthday of another great freedom fighter, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was the first Education Minister of our country, not to forget Diwali, a festival of lights that is enjoyed not only by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, for whom this festival has religious significance, but even Muslims, Christians and others who enjoy the beautiful displays of earthen lamps/electric bulbs of different colours and in many cases, even the crackers, this festival being metaphorical of moving from darkness to light.
But in a country where the number of our children being malnourished, lacking in education, working in harsh conditions or devastated by civil strife (think of the Kashmiri Hindu children in refugee camps born and brought up in penury outside their homeland, the Muslim children in Gujarat who lost their parents in the 2002 carnage or the Christian children who suffered the same fate in the 2008 Kandhamal violence, or the Bodo and Muslim children affected by the recent violence in Assam, besides those who have lost their parents in numerous terrorist attacks, whether by jihadists, Naxalites bombing election booths killing innocent voters or upper caste Hindu groups like the Ranvir Sena carrying out mass murders of Dalits or even secessionist insurgents in the north-east, who, like the Naxalites, also often forcibly recruit children in their ranks, robbing them of their childhood) or those going to schools but being subjected to corporal punishment instead of studying in an atmosphere where one can enjoy his/her education (horrible incidents of inhuman punishment have come to light in the last few months, such as a Class V girl being made to lick her urine as a punishment for bedwetting in an institution none other than Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan), the question we have to ask ourselves is – have we lived up to the dreams of men like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad who suffered and sacrificed for our independence? Are we truly moving from darkness to light?
No, this is not to present a rather cynical picture and to say that nothing has been achieved in the sphere of child rights, but more needs to be done. As Nehru said in his historic speech on 15th August 1947 (the reference to the greatest man of their generation obviously being to Mahatma Gandhi) –
“Before the birth of freedom, we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now. That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the One we shall take today. The service of lndia means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”
A great landmark that was achieved in the sphere of child rights was the establishment of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). It was set up under the Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, to safeguard child rights. The Right to Education (RTE) Act that was introduced in 2009 ensuring free education from the age group of six to fourteen years as a fundamental right, setting down some infrastructure norms that have to be met by all schools, reserving 25% of the seats in private schools for economically backward children with the government bearing their financial burden, prohibiting all forms of physical punishment and mental harassment to students as also detention till Class VIII, has placed on the NCPCR the responsibility of monitoring the Act (yes, I am critical of certain aspects of the Act, like no detention till Class VIII, but the statute is a historic one, something definitely being way better than nothing, and is a major achievement of the UPA), giving it the same powers in this regard as it has under the statute by virtue of which it has been constituted. These powers amount to receiving complaints of child rights violations (and in this context, any violation of the RTE Act) or taking suo moto cognizance of them, conducting investigations and forwarding the matter to the concerned executive or judicial authorities as also carrying out academic surveys concerning child rights and making policy recommendations or even suggestions as to statutory reforms in this sphere. It may conduct public hearings at its own sweet will or discretion at the behest of some NGO and only when the concerned executive departments have not taken due action, but the outcome of such hearings can obviously be challenged in a court of law.
As someone who was working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a leading public policy think-tank based in New Delhi, I interacted with several NCPCR officers during the course of a study I was carrying out on the efficacy of this body in monitoring the RTE Act, and I indeed did find them to be well-meaning, fairly proactive and professionally committed. However, in real terms, there is a wide gulf between their intentions and on-the-ground impact, the fault for which lies primarily not with the NCPCR but with its limitations under the law.
An RTI query reveals that as of March 2012, the NCPCR received 2,850 complaints regarding the RTE Act. However, it has been able to resolve just 692 cases, or just 24% of the entire lot, by now. Breaking down the numbers year-wise, from 1st April 2010 to 31st March 2011, the NCPCR resolved only about 54% of the cases, and from 1st April 2011 to 16th March 2012, only about 6%!
Mr. Umesh Gupta, who filed the RTI application and with whom I had the fortune of interacting with in person, said – “Not only is the data shocking, but the numbers actually denote the lowering efficacy of the NCPCR in monitoring the proper implementation of the RTE Act over the two years.”
According to a staff member of the NCPCR who was interviewed by me in person, an estimated 60-70% of the complaints relate to Govt. schools failing to meet infrastructure norms laid down under the RTE Act or there being no school in a certain area (though when I met Mr. Umesh Gupta later, he denied this, saying that most complaints are admission-related), and getting these problems solved obviously takes time, ranging across a few months, and the work of having these schools built or infrastructure norms met in existing schools is not done by the NCPCR itself but other education-related Govt. bodies.
That apart, in the context of admission-related complaints in Govt. schools, often bureaucrats in concerned Govt. bodies (such as in the context of Delhi, the Directorate of Education, Delhi, and MCD) don’t give timely responses to the NCPCR. He stated that recently, the NCPCR has requested for enquiries to be instituted against those inefficient bureaucrats by the concerned departments. However, the NCPCR is powerless to take action against them.
On a question being posed to an NCPCR officer by veteran journalist Arnab Gosawmi on the channel Times Now in a panel discussion in connection with an incident of corporal punishment (however, it may be noted that Mr. Goswami made an erroneous assertion that the Indian legal position actually provides room for corporal punishment, which is an anachronistic statement), on how the NCPCR, only carries out academic surveys and on taking cognizance of a certain violation revealed by media reports, only carries out an investigation or makes recommendations to the concerned authorities but is powerless to take action, the NCPCR representative couldn’t give a satisfactory answer and was evasive in his approach, making vague and abstract statements as regards changing popular mindsets on child rights issues! It would have been better for him to assert that the powers the NCPCR had were not in his hands and the body is indeed doing considerable work in the limited scope it has, which would have been a fair enough answer!
In my opinion, the NCPCR as a body can have meaningful efficacy only if it has more power to execute its decisions and penalize Govt. officers for non-compliance by way of fines and by having that non-compliance included in their reports to be considered for their promotions. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has that power with reference to monitoring the RTI Act, and I saw one of the former commissioners, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, making full use of it while in service, when I was interning under his esteemed self, back in my law school days. Till the NCPCR is given such powers, it sadly just remains a toothless tiger![box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: The author is a 23-year-old freelance writer based in New Delhi. He has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World’. A lawyer by qualification, he, till recently, worked in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a leading Delhi-based public policy think-tank, as a research associate, and he has referred to his stint there in this article. He is currently working on writing the script for a TV serial on the life of Maulana Azad. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]