Authored by D. Saran Prakash, M.A. Disaster Management, Batch of 2017-2019, Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Management (JTSDS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai
In this highly challenging period of time when staying indoors is the only way out, not all of us can afford to bask in the glory of this rather luxury of being safe inside the house.
Currently, India is under what is being called ‘the largest lockdown in history’ with around 1.3 billion people demanded to stay indoors (Umachandran, 2020) because of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak which has infected 78,194 people and has claimed 2,551 lives in the country, as on 14 May 2020. This pandemic has unveiled itself to be of a very different sort- of the kind that none of us has seen anything like before. Duly regarding the unprecedented nature and scale of the impact of the COVID-19, the Government of India has rightly issued [unnegotiable] restriction on the movement of people, and has been trying to ensure social distancing (HT Correspondent, 2020).
Unfortunately, a section of the population of the country is currently in a place where it is not supposed to be- children, in streets.
Street children and COVID-19
Street children make their living by selling balloons, pens etc. at the traffic signals. Understandably, they do not hold enough savings to last them even for a day, leave alone afford a shelter for themselves.
As the age group increases, the risk of COVID-19 increases (Schumaker, 2020). This means that, children have been considered to be at a lower risk of the infection. However, the fact to understand here is that, while children may not show the symptoms of COVID-19 as evidently as adults, they are not immune to the disease (Fernandes, 2020). In this scenario, any ignorance towards children’s possible exposure to the catching of infection only increases the already existing risk of pandemic on the entire population of the country.
However, before we venture to understand the relevance of focussing (also) on street children in the scenario of the health crisis, we need to stand clear on our understanding of who street children are, in the first place.
Street children or ‘street connected children’ are those who depend on the streets to live or work and are either on their own or live with other children or family members (Ravichandran, 2020). Until now, there is no national data on street children, possibly due to the constant mobility of these children and the consequent difficulty experienced in reaching out to them. However, a project of Save the Children India, funded by Department for International Development (DFID) indicated that there are over two million children on the streets of India (Save the Children India, 2017).
Before the institution of the lockdown, street children earned their living by working in farms and fields of rural areas, as ragpickers in the urban streets, selling balloons, pens and other knick-knacks at the traffic signals, and working in roadside shops and restaurants for a meagre daily wage. For shelter, they lived on streets, under giant flyovers, or in narrow lanes and bylanes. Because of the absence of any Government issued identification, these children remain missing from the system and are not easy to reach out to. This adds to the difficulty for even the charity workers to reach to them in general, and especially in the current circumstances when obtaining curfew passes for moving around in the city is highly difficult.
A report released by the United Nations in April said that,
“Children are not the face of this pandemic but they risk being among its biggest victims.”
Why is this pandemic snowballing the crisis for children in street situations in particular, and children in difficult circumstances like those of migrant workers in general?
According to the 2011 Census, there are 10.1 million child labourers in India (ILO, 2017). With this but needed lockdown, many of these children are suffering because the employers who used to hire them have suddenly disappeared, leaving them abandoned on the streets, as brought to light by Dr. Prannoy Roy in a discussion on the national television.
Another concern in this context is that, with schools shut down, a lot of these children have lost their access to one proper meal of the day, which they used to receive via mid-day meal scheme.
While this is just an immediate and a direct impact, many of the children coming from poor families are exposed to abuse and violence. An article dated 8 April 2020 in The Hindu stated that, the Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days. Harleen Walia, deputy director of Childline India stated that of the 3.07 lakh calls received by the CHILDLINE 1098 helpline for children in distress across the country between March 20-31, 30% were about the protection against abuse and violence on children (PTI, 2020).
In a welcome move, taking note of this grave concern, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has floated the plan to create a database of such children which can help link these children to various government social protection schemes and aid to prevent them from coming out on streets again (Parthasarathi, 2020). Priyank Kanoogi, chairperson of NCPCR said that children were being accommodated in government shelters and advisory has been issued to all the state authorities to arrange child-care institutions and if required, convert any place with adequate facilities into shelter, under Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 (Ravichandran, 2020).
However, as rightly pointed out by S. Navin Sellaraju, the Chief Executive Officer, Railway Children India: even after the health emergency is over, there is a good chance that children will be pushed back into workforce again (Ravichandran, 2020).
As we discuss here the perils that street children are surrounded by, in order to identify ways and modes to pull them out of the harm’s way, there can be a potential gap in our understanding and approach. For street connected children, streets have become their home and a way of being. So, when we say that they should be indoors or that they should be sheltered in a government created facility to face the pandemic, are we taking into consideration that the so called ‘normal indoors’ is not normal for them? The thing is, children who have grown accustomed to the ‘life of street’ have their own culture and ways of being. Therefore, in situations like these, as we prepare to reduce risks facing street children, are we also now looking at redefining childhoods and the ways of living for certain section of the society?
While the above-mentioned thought is considerable, what is also unavoidable is the concern that for children, a life in the streets, fenced with several perils all the time, is certainly not desirable. In that case, the current situation offers us an opportunity to carve out a safer place for these children in our society, that is also sustainable.
Back by decades or walking forward?
While several countries across the world are scaling up their respective health response in order to contain the spread of COVID-19, the focus on pandemic cannot be understood as divorced from the SDGs, as noted by the Prime Minister of Norway and the President of the Republic of Ghana.
In the year 2015, the United Nations introduced a set of 17 goals called the Sustainable Development Goals, which recognize the significance of ‘resilience’ as a fundamental prerequisite for sustainable development. An implicit conviction of these SDGs is that, health is not just a matter of biology but also a product of societal architecture and is therefore, amenable to human intervention- an approach with a large body of evidence behind it.
While all of these SDGs in general exercise an impact on children, certain goals appear clearly connected to them, which are: poverty (Goal 1), hunger (Goal 2), health (Goal 3), education (Goal 4), gender equality (Goal 5), climate change (Goal 13), and violence against children (Goal 16.2). The guiding principle of SDGs is ‘leave no one behind’. However, these children who live in streets are at the greatest risk of being left behind because they may not be covered in household surveys owing to the absence of stable and permanent shelter.
We must consider the perspective that keeping in sight the progress SDGs will put us on a path to dealing with global health risks like the current pandemic.
How can street children be helped?
Returning to the focus on street children in the current scenario, before we venture to identify ways and modes for immediate preparedness and response, an understanding of the nature of this concern becomes necessary. This is to say that, the concern of street children requires a localized approach- comprehending the cause and consequences of the actions to be taken. Therefore, the following are some of the proposed ways that can be considered to make it easier for street children to deal with this pandemic:
To begin with, the decision makers at the district level need to be informed about the relevance of the situation of street children and like marginalized children. This will not only allow them to plan measures to be taken, in engagement with local NGO representatives, but will also help them arrange for emergency funding, should a need arise.
Police aid, especially in places like railway stations and bus stands, and the surrounding areas, be sensitized regarding children in street situations, particularly right now. This will help the concerned officials to reach out to these children.
In Mumbai, youngsters from Rotaract Club of Lokhandwala are supporting a city-based NGO to provide daily essential items to the most affected section of the society. This is a measure that can be replicated in other parts of the country too. It may be added here that, with the help of ASHA workers and NGO representatives, an attempt can be to re-unite children living on the streets with their families. In case that is not possible due to whatever reason, these children may be sheltered in the care of trusted NGOs which have the required infrastructure to ensure that children are not exposed to the lurking danger outdoors.
At the community level, the residents too be informed via electronic messaging about the difficulties that the street children are at the risk of facing, and be advised to reach out to a helpline number to communicate in a scenario where any child might need help.
As we prepare for immediate response for street children in the current scenario, considering a sustainable plan for these children’s safer future may be kept in sight. This is to say that, as these children are sheltered under watchful guidance, adolescents may be injected into a system of two-way learning, wherein, with the help of distance learning modules prepared by several educational institutes, they receive school education, as well as vocational training. Why is this important? Complexities arising out of disasters, as we understand now, do not come one at a time. In that context, while building the capacities of communities and the governments are of vital importance, engaging children and youth also is critical to reduce vulnerability and boost up resilience.
Currently, as the focus of almost all the line departments and concerned authorities is concentrated on dealing with health emergency, we cannot afford to lose sight of the aftermath of the pandemic, that holds the potential to take us back by decades. In this view, it is the collective responsibility of the Government agencies, the civil society and the academia to collaborate in order to reduce the several risks that hover over all of us, with appropriate level and amount of preparedness to deal with what is coming our way further.
Fernandes, M. (2020, April 1). Why children are not immune to Covid-19. Retrieved from BBC FUTURE: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200330-coronavirus-are-children-immune-to-covid-19
HT Correspondent. (2020, May 20). Decoded in 9 points: India’s lockdown 3.0 restrictions, red zone and travel. Retrieved from HindustanTimes: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-s-lockdown-3-0-restrictions-red-zone-and-travel-decoded-in-9-points/story-sOpDy1zkSdL3SetlJpOaQJ.html
ILO. (2017). Child Labour in India. International Labour Organization. Retrieved from UNICEF- for every child.
Parthasarathi, M. (2020, May 5). COVID-19 lockdown: NCPCR to focus on creating database of street children. Retrieved from Business Insider India: https://www.businessinsider.in/india/news/covid-19-lockdown-ncpcr-to-focus-on-creating-database-of-street-children/articleshow/75554936.cms
PTI. (2020, April 8). Coronavirus lockdown | Govt. helpline receives 92,000 calls on child abuse and violence in 11 days. Retrieved from The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-lockdown-govt-helpline-receives-92000-calls-on-child-abuse-and-violence-in-11-days/article31287468.ece
Ravichandran, N. (2020, May 6). Where Have the Children on the Streets Gone? Retrieved from THE WIRE- SOCIETY: https://thewire.in/society/covid-19-lockdown-children-beggars-workers
Save the Children India. (2017, January 27). Scripting a new future for street children of India. Retrieved from Save the Children: https://www.savethechildren.in/news/scripting-a-new-future-for-street-children-of-india
Schumaker, E. (2020, April 2). Risk for severe COVID-19 increases with each decade of age. Retrieved from abc NEWS: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/risk-severe-covid-19-increases-decade-age/story?id=69914642
Umachandran, S. (2020, March 26). Blame it on the virus, it’s the largest lockdown in history. Retrieved from livemint: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/blame-it-on-the-virus-it-s-the-largest-lockdown-in-history-11585159348758.html