Every election is a time to reflect on the mistakes of the past and adopt corrective measures to address the lacunae and re-dedicate ourselves to establish a just, inclusive and fair polity.
As Assam is going to have its State Assembly election during March-April 2021, a pertinent question that comes, to the fore, about how the issues of children who are not the quintessential ‘vote banks’, would be taken care of, when the new government would get elected.
As the state of Assam is heading for a three-phased Assembly election, from March 27, 2021 how the voices of the children could be built in the public discourse so that actionable policies could be undertaken, by the next government that would be in favour for the children, as they are not only our future but our present too.
Now is the time for us to unite and bring one forgotten voice into the discussion – children.
Children form nearly 41% of the state population (UNICEF-Children in Assam 2018), and yet we find them and their concerns not getting adequate attention and allocation of resources. A look at a few data sets would reveal the precarious situation of children in the state.
The state still lacks in key child development issues such as infant and Under-5 mortality 31.9% and 39.1% respectively.
The state is still a substantial contributor to both IMR and Under-5 mortality for the country. Low rate of immunization is a contributor to this serious set-back, to achieve a healthy life for all children in the state.
Education although at elementary and primary level has seen a considerable progress in terms of retention, with more than 67,000 elementary schools set up in the state and pre-school enrolment.
Despite this high number of teacher vacancies, low attendance of children in school has caused stagnation in the quality of education.
Similarly, issues related to violence against children continue to be of major concern for the state.
The exploitation practices such as child marriage, child trafficking and child labour are still rampant in the state.
While 31.8% (NFHS-5, 2019-20) of children get married before their 18th birthday, the data has shown an increase from its previous survey. Needless to mention the survey is showing pre-lockdown data set.
Thus in the post-lockdown period when schools continued to remain closed due to surge in COVID-19 cases, it can be assumed that the figure might have gone up.
The state’s history of ethnic tensions and economic underdevelopment has made large section of its population especially girl child vulnerable to trafficking.
There have been increasing incidents of crimes against children, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB-2019) shows that out of 2067 children who were reported to be missing, 1270 were girls below the age of 18.
This requires immediate attention especially for those who are most vulnerable in the state. Interventions aimed at increased reporting of abuse and creation of safe spaces for boys and girls would require immediate attention to improve the situation.
Considerably aggravating the vulnerabilities, the multiple waves of floods, that the state faces every year, threatened to overwhelm the state as children have to shift to relief camps for indefinite periods with their families.
Increased risks to survive thrive and remain protected made children disproportionately vulnerable to the intergenerational poverty cycles and resorting to negative coping mechanisms from children dying before their fifth birthday to dropping out of school or being trafficked, even sometimes being forced to get married at an early age or to get employed as a child labours.
These are certain, un-answered questions that revolve in the mind of those who form more than one-fourth of Assam’s population, as the state is gearing up for its three-phased election.
The data from various sources speak about the precarious situation of children in the state, COVID-19 has added salt to the wound.
While we come to terms with the COVID-induced changes one cannot comprehend the damage that the pandemic will inflict on children both directly and indirectly.
While decoding this mysterious peculiarity of the virus, what has escaped our attention is the long-term damage and cascading effect of COVID19 is likely to cause in children — through inadequate health services, broken medical supplies, interrupted access to nutritious food and income loss in families, lack of access to school and education, having protection net at the societal level.
Children belonging to poor households especially those residing in the tea gardens face the highest vulnerability in terms of education, protection and brain development at crucial stages of their life.
With diminishing livelihood options of their parents and physical schooling almost a day-dream have pushed development initiatives, to a stand-still, thereby shifting back the needle of development to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
The children in the state, even the most marginalized of them all, aspire for their dream state where they demand for having their text books at the beginning of the academic year to enable continue their education, protection of children in tea gardens while going to school, availability of clean drinking water and sanitation in schools along with availability of essential drugs and sanitary napkins in health sub-centers.
They also want to ensure their younger siblings to be immunized. Children do not want to get married early and do not want to lose school days due to flood also.
The future of children in Assam is inseparably tied to the importance given to them in the policies and decisions made by stakeholders. In this election season, we have observed a plethora of promises made by every political party in their respective manifestos, with few promises for children as well.
The children might be the future voters but they are the present citizen as well. Thus, it’s high time for the political parties to prioritisethe aspirations of the children – a sizable constituent of the state’s citizens.
(Authors: Chittapriyo Sadhu is deputy director – programme management (East), Deba Prasad Sarma, assistant manager- programmes and Soumi Guha Halder, campaigns and communication manager (East) of Save the Children)