CHILDREN WITHOUT CHILDHOOD

Dr. Nibedita Nath

Assistant Professor and Head School of Anthropology,

Gangadhar Meher University, Sambalpur.

Email: drnibedita.nath@gmail.com


There can be no Keener revelation of a Society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.

Nelson, Mandela, Former president of South Africa


Fourteen years old Kulsum hates going to school because her class teacher always addresses her as parartukel (girl from a basti/slum). The teacher like most of us fails to internalize her pain of being segregated. Kulsumis attributed a category that is socially separable and by connotation represents an inferior class of humanity. As a geographical area of habitation, a slum as a dwelling unit and a slum dweller as its inhabitant acquire culturally pejorative connotation. The presence of slums in the vicinity of fancy neighbourhoods is a common occurrence in all cities across the country. To have lofty programmes for slum clearance, for slum development and for improving the quality of life of slum dwellers is part of passion and romance that every administrator verbalizes. But sadly, none of us is sensitive to exploring their reflexivity, their pain, frustration, and anger on being identified, rebuked, or addressed as a slum dwellers.

My home state of Odisha is no exception, though according to the recent Odisha economic Survey (2019-20), it has the lowest slum population in the country comprising only 3.72% of its total population. Two cities that I am most familiar with within my home state are the cities of Bhubaneshwar and Sambalpur. Nearly 30% population of the capital city of Bhubaneshwar and 11.94% population of Sambalpur lives in slums. I spent my childhood seeing young children from these localities cleaning tables in the restaurants, polishing shoes sitting on the road berms, working in the cycle and automobile repair, as I walked or drove secured in the company of my parents. Our everyday chotu serving tea in the school and later in the college canteens were rarely questioned. These images are vivid in my memories and are often troubling and question-begging. Seeing young children begging for money and food on the streets or in the trains left me drained, wondering what kind of childhood is it!

I have a few fond memories of playful moments that I spent with some of them, particularly when I started exploring their childhood for my research. The conscious decision to pursue the systematic study of what I describe as the journey of Children without Childhood was a Catharsis for my troubling memories and an intense desire to comprehend the complexities of their lost childhood. Thelkopara and bahalpara slums close to my home. But for my research, I decided to explore the lives of children living in the slums of Sakhipara and Dhuchurapara. My socialization was intertwined with the accepted norms of indifference towards these young children who came home for odd jobs.

To become part of their journey, I played with them in the streets, I gossiped with them tearing kendu leaves for making bidi sitting on the veranda, I walked with them, often jumping like a ten-year-old, smiling, and talking till they reached their work destinations. Most of my co-researchers were young girls serving as housemaids in middle and upper-class households. Sometimes, I just sat under a tree or veranda waiting for them to finish their work and share their experiences with me. They would often come and say, “it is impossible to satisfy these masters as they are not happy how much work you may do. They think we are not human but machines”.I admired their resilience and perseverance as they fed their younger siblings with their tiny hands. Their little fingers could barely take a morsel to their own mouth.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to listen to their chatter as they bathed in dirty pond water playfully throwing water at each other. This was possibly their only time for a genuine laugh.

We are persistently told that children are important assets of any nation. They are always referred to as "future citizens" of a country. Physiologically "Childhood" in texts is defined as the period between infancy (1-2years to adolescence 12-13 years). It is expected to be a period of innocence, free from responsibility or conflict, and must be filled with fluttery, play, leisure, and opportunity. Paradoxically, childhood is not necessarily concomitant to the biological age of a child, it is determined by socio-cultural eco-systems and economic circumstances in which children are brought to be part of the physical world. Experiences of childhood vary within a region defined and determined by culture and constructs of marginality. These constructs are not only socio-economic but also deciphered by the locality and circumstances of their natal families.

‘Slum children' are ascribed a category because of the site of habitation of their parents. ‘Slum’ as a noun refers to ‘squalid and overcrowded urban street inhabited by very poor people’. The origin of the word dates to the beginning of the 19th Century to describe a “room of low repute”. These characteristics condemn children born and nurtured in these localities to a censured childhood. They are deprived of their fundamental rights to freedom, education, leisure, and recreation. Childhood in these slums is nipped in the bud. Poverty compels many of them to start working sometimes as early as six or seven. Girl child gets particularly impacted. They are often forced to take care of younger siblings, even before their own childhood has blossomed. Parents of these children if employed at all, are mostly working in the informal sector. There is no job or social security. Women are not entitled to any kind of paid maternity leave and are compelled to go back to work often after two to three weeks of unpaid work or they may have to forgo their temporary employment. There are other compulsions of large family size, alcoholic or drug addict male parent leaving overburdened women in the household to ensure food for the family. Literature in all recognised languages of the country is replete with anecdotal evidence and stories drawing on the life sketches of these most vulnerable women of slums.

The pivot of my concern here is the lost childhood of those born in this bastis (habitations). The Constitution of India guarantees the right to equality to all its citizens. But this equality remains only in the pages of the Constitution, as equality is a dream at the grass-roots level. India ratified

UN’s CRC (Convention on Rights of Child) in the year 1992. More recently on 13th June 2017, India also gave instruments of ratification of the two fundamental ILO conventions that concern elimination of Child labour, the Minimum Age Convention 1973 (no. 138) and the worst forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No.182). Unfortunately, empirical data from my research and other studies suggest that as a nation we have failed to make any concerted efforts to eliminate the curse with which both street and slum children are born.

The welfare of the urban poor children is still a far cry as they have not been adequately targeted. Policy formulation for changing prejudices linked to slum habitations are not even in sight. The programs launched so far touch only a fringe of their problems. United Nations program on human Settlements (UN-HABITAT) has tried to address these pejorative connotations by redefining a slum as “a contiguous settlement where the inhabitants are characterized as having inadequate housing and basic services”; it then adds a very important caveat by stating that a “a slum is often not recognized and addressed by the public authorities as an integral or equal part of the city” (UN-HABITAT Urban Secretariat & Shelter Branch, 2002). By drawing attention to lack of infrastructure as a primary drawback of slums, UN-HABITAT is from distancing itself from the perceptions of the 19th century viewing it as a “room of low repute”.

In a recent decision, the Odisha government passes a proposal for giving land rights to slum dwellers. In a historic decision, it approved the ‘Jagga mission’ for slum dwellers in five municipal corporations- Berhampur, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, Rourkela, and Sambalpur. This provision enables either property rights or land rights to the ‘slum households in situ over a land up to an extent of 45 square meters’ (Indian Express, Bhubaneshwar 31st December 2021). It further qualifies that slum dwellers belong to the EWS category and are entitled to rights over 30sq.m free of cost. If the land on which they are currently inhabiting is less than 30sq.m. and there is additional government land available in the vicinity of their existing hutment, they will be given entitlement over an amalgamated landholding of 30sq. metres. These provisions are made to help slum dwellers avail loans from PMAY (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana) and have ownership rights. The newspaper report suggests that these provisions would help 2.4 lakh households covering around 9.7 lakh population in 5 municipal corporation areas.

However, my concern is with the further ghettoization of children born in these localities. If these families are encouraged to settle in the same habitation sites, the alienation of these children at government schools, at workspaces and a class identity marker they carry with them would continue to persist. The city planning segregates residences on socio-economic criteria and inadvertently fortifies social alienation and ‘othering’ of its residents and of children socialized in these closed spaces. Childhood of the children in slum setting is referred to as ‘ruined childhood’. As young adults, they describe their childhood as the worst phase of their life. Any reference to childhood being the best phase of an individual’s life brings a hurt look and a sad smile on their faces.

Poverty snatched away any experience of early childhood. They did not spend the early years of their lives cuddled in their mother’s arms, playing with other siblings not worried about how and from where will anything to eat come from. For these children, childhood was looking for food either by begging or cleaning utensils or serving tea and for young girls, it meant taking care of their younger siblings or going with their mothers to their workplaces, helping in odd jobs and may be awarded by a generous malik (owner of the workplace) with a sweet, a biscuit or small chocolate. The general conception of childhood as a 'period free from responsibility, conflict and full of fluttery, play, leisure and opportunity is quite unrealistic for these children living in demarcated areas called slums. Lack of access to proper recreation is a sad reality for them. They do not find adequate space to play and roam around. Further, they stay away from the leisure complexes and activities in the city as they are subject to costs and time, that their parents are not able to afford. They see other children of their age enjoying these benefits and develop a sense of deprivation as they are not able to experience any of it.

Children below the age of fourteen if found working falls in the category of child labour. By some estimates, there are nearly 33 million minor children in India working in various industries. This is a harsh reality irrespective of the fact that there are several constitutional provisions and international conventions that ban children from working. Many children in the research population that I worked with were compelled to work. Few of them did go to school but were working before or after going to school. Their childhood is characterized by hard work, absence of leisure, and lack of any opportunity. Curtailed childhood occurred due to the forceful early situational imposition of responsibility to contribute to the maintenance of family by either extending service at home or doing economically productive work outside the home. This has resulted in the ‘adultization of childhood’.

Socialization in slums is affected by socio-economic and environmental conditions to a large extent. Parents do not give much importance to the socialization of the children because of hardships, frustrations, and fatigue caused in earning a livelihood. Very often the female child assumes her mother's role to relieve her mother to go out to earn a livelihood. The younger ones are looked after by their elder siblings in the absence of mothers. The irony is that these elder siblings are again children who need socialization and care. Learnings essentially part of the primary socialization of every child are missing from the lives of this ascribed category of ‘slum children’.

Persistence struggle for livelihood and survival coerces parents to deny much attention to the health of their children. Unhygienic living condition results in poor health, malnutrition, and stunted growth. It is caused by limited intake of food -a by-product of poverty that prevents these children to grow up as healthy human beings. Their survival and development are threatened because of undernutrition and poor sanitary condition. Some of them also develop poor mental health. There are laws that mandate the right to education for every child, but these children are often denied both primary care and education. Due to poor financial conditions, many parents consider schooling for long years as secondary and earning of livelihood as a primary need. Few of them having access to schooling face discrimination that Kulsum experienced. Perpetual discrimination and denial take away the natural desire for learning and achieving.

It is thus pertinent at this stage to rethink our strategy for rehabilitation. While the Odisha cabinet’s decision to give right over land or property is most noteworthy and progressive, rehabilitating them in the same demarcated colonies may not be able to bring about a desired psychological boost to the expectations and ambitions of the pejorative connotations of being 'slum children'. A well thought out policy must mingle these neighbourhoods on the principle of voluntary shifting to bring about significant change and to distance them from the ascriptive category of being called 'slum children'. Rehabilitation and slum development policies must take cognizance of all instruments of ‘othering’ that inhabitants of these colonies experience. As stated earlier children are the future of any society. It is critical to provide a suitable environment for their healthy growth. These children must be provided adequate opportunities to grow into robust citizens, physically fit, mentally alert, and morally healthy. Happy childhood leading to happy adulthood is the basis of a good society. These children have dreams, ambitions, aspirations, and a desire to excel in life. When a stereotype is assigned to them because they live in a locality that is viewed differently, their growing years are scarred. I distinctively recall one of my co-research participants from Sakhipara, who got an opportunity to go to school and learn to playKabbadi. She excelled in the sport and played first at the district level and then at the state level. Her success in this sport gave her the confidence to make a career in sports. She said to me one day with passion and pride in her voice that she has proved to the world that a girl from slum or para ratukel is not inferior to anyone. She also has the capabilities to excel if she gets an opportunity. I remember what American human rights activist Jesse Jackson once said, “I was born in a slum, but the slum wasn’t born in me”. Crucial it is to de-construct the notion of slum and not to subject children born in these localities to a life of ignominy.

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