Children require very little; they are resilient and resourceful. Given a chance, they are likely to survive. But one thing they do need is protection. When it comes to child protection in India, the statistics paint a disturbing picture. More worrying is that children are most at risk in the institutions designed to protect them. Take, for instance, the recent revelations of sexual abuse in shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These incidents are by no means exceptional. Just as the latest figures released by the Centre showing the presence of 14 lakh fake beneficiaries in anganwadis in Assam are not unfamiliar. In 2016, Assam's social welfare department had been accused of siphoning off Rs 150 crore a year from the government coffers in the name of feeding children. Assam's social welfare minister now claims that the number of ghost children is nowhere close to 14 lakh; she puts their number between six to nine lakh. (Does this make the situation any better?) The Integrated Child Development Services - anganwadis come under it - has made crucial progress when it comes to addressing the needs of children. However, repeated studies have revealed that corruption and high staff absence from duty render the ICDS near dysfunctional.
There are several factors that allow such malpractices to flourish. The centralized model of monitoring; the lack of community awareness about entitlements and of formal spaces for community participation in the programme are some of these. The paltry pay of anganwadi workers and the paucity of manpower do not help either. Then there are ill-conceived moves like the near 50 per cent cut in the ICDS budget that was carried out in 2015-16. This made wage payments a "month-to-month suspense" according to the women and child development minister. The cut was partly reversed, but by then it had sent a disastrous signal down the line, adding to the insecurities of the already underpaid anganwadi worker. But the corruption that is styming the progress of the scheme is neither restricted to the lowest rungs of its structure nor unique to the ICDS. Whether it is shelter homes or the public distribution mechanism, a complex system of patronage and corruption - usually involving politicians, bureaucrats and various other stakeholders - renders India's most vulnerable segments invisible when it comes to receiving welfare. Assam's ghost children, at least, have shown up in the official count; there are thousands of actual children who remain unseen by the State.