THE DESTITUTE STREET CHILDREN: AN OVERLOOKED NARRATIVE
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
By- Sanighdha, 3rd Year, B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) Student at University Institute Of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh
"The presence of even a single poor child on the street means a million defeats for mankind.” – Mehmet Murat Ildan
Children, as we often quote, are a precious gift of God for mankind. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, the majority is attained earlier.” In India, the definition of a child varies according to the law applicable to a particular situation that involves the child.
For example, the age of majority under the Indian Penal Code (1860) is 12 years, unless otherwise stated in the context; the age of majority under the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) is 18 years for a girl and 21 years for a boy; under the Indian Majority Act (1875) the age of majority is 18 years and above, along with a provision that specifically mandates that a person under lawful guardianship attains the age of majority at 21 years; the age of majority according to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (1986) and The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) is 14 years; and according to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2015, the age of a juvenile is determined based on the intensity of crime committed and can be either 16 years (heinous offense) or 18 years (non-heinous offense).
STREET CHILDREN AND COVID-19
As many laws as we have that define the term ‘child,’ there is no legislation dealing with the street children either at the international level or at the national level. The World Health Organisation (WHO), in its Report “A Profile of Street Children,” categorizes street children into four main categories. They are-
a. A ‘child of the streets’: Such a child has no home and lives on the streets. The reason for having no permanent dwelling can range from being abandoned by family members or having lost all of them, somehow or the other. The dependence of a street child in this category is completely based on overt aid and assistance by a friend, a government authority, or NGO.
b. A ‘child on the street’: A ‘child on the street’ means that the child often visits his/her family or relatives at night, but spends most of the day’s hours on the streets either begging or selling other products. This category of a street child is different from the former category as the child included in the earlier definition has no home, where he/she can go and spend the night. Also, the dearth of relatives or a family is a clear-cut basis of differentiation between the two.
c. A ‘part of a street family’: Street family means a whole family dwelling or residing on the street. A child who’s part of such a family is undeniably a street dweller, with no permanent housing or shelter, either for him/her self or the immediate family members. Street families can usually be found in big cities where internal immigration is profoundly visible due to better job opportunities for low-income families and a relatively good standard of living. However, most of these immigrant families are forced to make streets their permanent housing, because of the congested city area and high population burden. This, in turn, affects the growth and development of the child with severely impairing his/her mental, cognitive, social, and economic prospects.
d. A ‘child in institutionalized care’: Such a child is stated to have come from a state of homelessness and is at an increased risk of becoming homeless being once again.
It is cognizable from the propositions mentioned above that a street child lives a jeopardized life, which is constantly and incessantly imperiled by the atrocities of his milieu and circumstances. Children usually take to the street for earning money for themselves or their respective families; for finding an adequate shelter or escaping rejection of the family members and to flee away from the work demands at home. A rejection attributed to the child maybe because of some physical disability or mental shortcoming conjoined with a feeling unwanted by family members. Having more children than can be supported on the family income also leads to ignorance faced by a child by other members of the family.
While the world stays at home, there are innumerable children on the global streets facing myriad problems in today’s difficult times such as- hygienic conditions for living, proper sanitation facilities, safe drinking water, et al. India has the largest number of street children in the world, with Mumbai raising a big chunk (1 lac) of the same in its lap. According to a report, calls for and by distressed children have increased by 50% in the lockdown, with at least 8% of them dealing with missing or runaway children. The rise in the number of children exposed to domestic violence during the initial lockdowns is estimated to have increased from 27.1 to 69 million (UNICEF). According to the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, 70000 children who live on the streets of Delhi had learned to earn and sustain themselves somehow. Still, the present unprecedented times have acted as looming ruination in their already gloomy future. With street children facing a serious threat of getting trapped in the net of bonded labour, the legal chasms to deal with the problem are now clearly visible. Amidst the present chaos, the right of street children to access the highest attainable standard of health is also imperiled.
LEGAL PERSPECTIVE - SUGGESTIONS & CHALLENGES
Street Children are generally looked down upon and categorized as ‘neglected children’ in Indian society. Section 2(2) of the Children Act (1960) defines a neglected child as a child-
Is found begging;
Found having any home or settled place of abode or any ostensible means of subsistence, or is destitute (orphan or not);
Or has a parent or a guardian who is unfit to or does not exercise proper care or control over the child;
Or lives in a brothel or with a prostitute.
With no specific law governing their state of indignity, intermittent policy decisions are a major relief for tackling their problems. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), in collaboration with Save the Children, released the “Standard Operating Procedures for Care and Protection of Children in Street Situations” in 2017. The SoP recognises the growing sight of street children in India and emphasizes the need to provide all the necessities to them. The SoP not only categorizes the street children but also provides procedural safeguards while rescuing and rehabilitating street children in India. It mandates strict maintenance of database pertaining to street children so as to fasten the efforts of reaching “every last child” in India, as expounded by the National Plan of Action for Children (2016). A critical evaluation of the SoP reveals that the document covers all aspects of street children, but fails to fix the responsibility on a specific authority or an organ in cases of negligent behaviour meted out to a street child. This becomes highly relevant in the present scenario because the police forces have been constantly accused of using force and unnecessary coercive methods with the destitute street children.
Article 15(3) of the Constitution of India is an enabling provision for formulating specific laws for children and women. Article 39 (Part IV) of the Constitution is a Directive Principle of State Policy that directs the State to prevent abuse of the tender age of children. Along with that, the UDHR (1948) also provides protective measures for abused children. Despite requisite legislation, the problem of street children is an ever-growing one. The same can be tackled with the effective implementation of the laws.
However, a specific law will do more good for protecting the street children. A comprehensive database concerning the needs, facilities, and amenities required by the street children in India is the need of the hour. Setting up a special home where street children can reside, get an education, and train themselves in vocational courses is also a step forward. Providing vocational training to the street children can aid in the advancement of the Skill India Programme and the Atman Nirbhar Abhiyan. The glaring non-mention of street children in the New Education Policy (2020) is a step down from the policies formulated until now. It points out the level of seriousness with which street children are viewed in the government echelons.
Engaging community participation and awareness programs to enlighten the masses about this hidden problem is the sure way forward. The government must focus more on the issue and form a targeted policy strategy to achieve zero children on the street. It will not only aid in the development of the nation but will also assist in achieving sustainable development goals in a phased manner.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Child Rights Centre.)