Friday, January 11, 2008

Child Rights & the city

From a children’s rights perspective, the most important issue is child survival. Bastis in metropolitan Calcutta severely threaten child survival. An analysis of child mortality statistics for Calcutta, Howrah and other adjacent municipal areas, would reveal a significant differential between the figures for the Hindu and Muslim communities. This is primarily a proxy indicator of basti / non-basti differentials in environmental health. But there are also specific problems and issues characterizing Muslim bastis. In sum, living conditions in Muslim bastis are very poor, and the final consequence of this is high infant morbidity and mortality.

Perhaps the most acute problem obtains in basti areas (e.g. in Howrah) where service latrines are still in use. Despite a law banning this, and the central govt’s scheme of subsidy assistance to eradicate such latrines, they remain. A major reason is corruption in the local bodies, whereby the subsidy is falsely siphoned off without actually constructing a sanitary toilet.

Over the last decade, the phenomenon of illegal building construction in bastis, and especially in Muslim bastis, has become rampant. This severely worsens the already terrible environmental conditions. For instance, excreta from the flats in the new illegal buildings is discharged into open drains below. Drains are severely clogged, leading to flooding during the rainy season. The incidence of gastro-intestinal and malarial diseases is high. The principal cause is lack of access to adequate supplies of clean drinking water, compounded by inadequate sanitation.

Primary education is also a vital issue in Muslim bastis. Despite the growth of school-going and also female school-going, there are still a large number of children who are unable to go to school. Non-school going still remains deeply entrenched among the poorest section in the bastis. But perhaps an equally deplorable situation exists in regard to the primary schools in Muslim bastis. The quantity and quality of infrastructure and teachers in such schools are highly inadequate to the real needs. Hence, every year, tens of thousands of school graduates are produced, who only add to the ranks of the unemployed and unemployable. Hence, today we are also witnessing the phenomenon of reverse discrimination – where boys are taken out of school to work, though girls are encouraged to continue.

The above rapid summary of some of the crucial issues facing hundreds of thousands of metropolitan Calcutta’s children – is intended to highlight the dimensions of the problems, their structural nature, and the complexity attending them. But they are not insoluble. A number of concrete proposals have been developed by the city’s activists and planners over the years, including in recent times. But these proposals only point to the need for drastic institutional reform, without which any positive change is not possible.

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