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MINOR PROBLEM

In an overpopulated developing country like India, does the welfare of children really matter? And when it does matter, what kind of children are actually the beneficiaries of such concern? When people talk about the rights of children, do they really know what they are talking about? How far beyond the lives of their own children does their imagining of the lives — and therefore the rights — of children stretch? To protect the respectability of ‘childhood’, the lexicon of law and social policy needs words like ‘juveniles’ and ‘minors’ to acknowledge those below the age of 18 who commit disrespectable crimes like rape and murder. Minors, usually girls, who are brutalized and/or killed at regular intervals all over the country ultimately do not matter, for these things happen in the margins of cities, in suburban dystopias and rural waste-lands — beyond the borders of the respectable. Child labour, on the other hand, is ubiquitous and convenient, and happens in complicatedly ambivalent circumstances. So, it is best to pretend not to see it until things come to some sort of international head, when it is wise to make a few token noises and gestures, and wait for the media to move on to the next human-interest story. Otherwise, the children of the poor who do not go to school, and live and grow in the open, are scarcely more worthy of notice than are stray animal litter.

The perfect example of this general indifference is the fact that 19 Indian states have not bothered to form child protection commissions even after being scolded by the Supreme Court for not having done so. Some of these states, like West Bengal, have a commission only in name or on paper. When it comes to a situation involving children that requires active intervention, these bodies cannot be depended upon in any real sense — in fact, they often cannot be found to exist in flesh and blood, or brick and mortar. And nobody is bothered that nobody is bothered — apart from the NGOs and the apex court. In any case, the children who matter are going to be looked after by their families and the private sector, and the ones who do not matter do not matter. Besides, children cannot vote and are only, as the cliché goes, the future of India, and everyone knows that these commissions are not given the power to make anything happen. They can only observe, and make recommendations that are generally ignored.