“Do you take children to outings or picnics in the city?” I was interviewing the community health worker in Mumbai who plays the role of a guardian of children during the daytime.
The worker sarcastically giggled and answered, “How can that be possible, sir? It is quite risky. If a child is lost or something happens, we are accountable. Parents will blame us. And according to what we watch on television and hear in the news, it is not safe outside. There’s also much traffic here. The bikers are always in rush mode. We teach children at the centre only. We show them pictures of trees, different animals and places.”
I received the same giggle and more or less the same answer from all the 10 workers I interviewed.
My mind naturally went 15 years back in time to compare how the situation was when I was a child.
In those days, children used to walk to school if their houses were near. Parents used to be concerned about whether their child would be able to cross the road or not – and therefore, someone used to accompany the child. That was it! Otherwise walking to school was quite common, joyful and simply fine. The thoughts like “My child will be lost”, “Someone will kidnap or mistreat my child”, “Walking in this city is impossible for a small child” were hardly there in the community’s consciousness.
Of course, parents were careful. Parents used to take safety measures. But there was little worry and almost no panic!
Then, why is such a drastic change in children’s mobility visible today?
1. Is it because the environment outside has become more insecure for children in the last few decades?
2. Is it because our cities are growing without any control and the urban children are not assured of even basic safety services? Or is it because of the dumps of waste, open potholes or open drains?
3. Is it because we don’t mingle with our neighbors anymore? Many people in cities hardly know who stays in their neighborhood.
4. Is it because of the increased economic disparity, which has given rise to crimes like theft, kidnapping, abuse and violence?
5. Is it because citizens are becoming so insensitive that one can’t really guarantee a child’s safety in public places?
6. Is it because the media, thriving on breaking news and the bombardment of shows like “Crime Patrol” and “Savdhaan India”, increases the suspicions?
7. Is it because episodes like Pradyuman’s death at Ryan School have made parents scared from the inside?
8. Is it because it’s easier for working parents to hand over the smartphone to children rather than giving them exposure to the playground?
9. Is it because ‘child-rearing’ is time-consuming and strenuous task for today’s parents when they are already under work-pressure and abrupt work-timings? Moreover, what about cases where there’s no sibling to look after a child?
10. Is it because exponentially-increasing vehicles, vanishing footpaths and people not bothering to follow the traffic rules?
The reasons can be plenty and widespread – ranging from our policies on urbanisation to the way people think and behave.
Unfortunately we can’t travel back through time and create this security for our children.
The ‘child safety’ agenda in urban policy and programmes is must. The community and movements around this issue should clearly demand it.
As far as the role of conscious parent is concerned, I suggest this five-point agenda:
1. Children need listening: The child may not speak, but they often give a hint or hints when they feel unsafe. Don’t ignore the verbal and non-verbal cues which children give.
2. Children need people: Maintaining social relations and having strong social networks is healthy. Keep the windows open for children from where they can access the help.
3. Children need nature: Spending time in a natural environment heals physically and emotionally. Make sure that children get adequate exposure to nature.
4. Children need smart people and not smartphones: Gadgets and technology are good – but not at the cost of a childhood. Ensure that children get human love and affection, instead of a mechanical gadget world.
5. Children need allies: Only if adults follow the ‘safe’ habits, are children likely to follow them. Don’t be a dictator who orders, but be an ally who models and demonstrates.
With actions on multiple levels, the day will not be far when community health workers will narrate the joyful stories of picnics organised by them for children.
Acknowledgement: I acknowledge United Way Mumbai, under whose project I had an opportunity to interact with the community health workers who triggered my thought process.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.