Seventy years of freedom, Independence day and more than sixty children dead because the oxygen supply was cut at the local hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, or so the story goes. We know the drill well. Social media outrage, indignant press, political blame games and couch conversations about the sad state of the country. Or, in the best-case scenario a swift legal response where some culprit is brought to book.
Then, we go back to sleep, until the next nightmare jolts us awake.
It doesn’t matter if it was Baby Falak, whose bashed-in skull and injured body told a tangled story of abuse, trafficking and violence five years ago, or the two teenage girls raped and killed on their way to a toilet in an Uttar Pradesh village that brought home the truth about girl vulnerability, caste violence and police apathy – these tragic incidents turn quickly into cases for all of us. As a country we then busy ourselves with crime and punishment. We demand explanations, press for investigation, petition for arrests and lobby for resignations. Finally, when the judge delivers a tough sentence, we are redeemed, having participated in ensuring justice for victims.
But let’s not fool ourselves. The survival, health, security and safety of children growing up in districts like Gorakhpur (one of the 250 districts identified by the Government of India as eligible for India’s most backward regions grant) continue to be just as fragile as ever before. Families across India’s most vulnerable districts have lived for years battered by structural violence – their children harmed by the chronic lack of access to basic services and rights. So much so that failures of the system or the dangerous circumstances in which children grow up are well accepted by them and to a large extent by us.
Which means that no matter how many officials are suspended or politicians are replaced– lives and childhood will continue to be lost. Thousands of children are going missing, their mothers too frightened to report to the police. Parents are being pressured to put children down as deposits for unpaid loans, unaware of laws that prohibit bonded labor. Boys from scheduled caste groups are silently suffering brutal beatings believing that nobody will help, and adolescent girls are learning to expect attacks and assault every evening on their way to the public toilet, as if this is normal.
In a survey done by Aangan with 19000 mothers across eighteen districts in five states, 58% women reported they could not access police stations, 37% had taken loans to cover medical treatment. Despite this, 75% believed they had no access to hospitals. 27% had to leave their babies (under six years) unsupervised when they went to work or to fetch water because they could not use the local aanganwadi crèches/health centers provided by the government – placing their children at risk each day. It would be shameful to wait for another tragedy the proportion of the recent Gorakhpur incident before action is taken to make under supervised babies safer or ensure that families can trust the police. But for this, early signs of risk must be understood and action initiated quickly by families in the poorest districts.
Building of a preventative community child safety system is urgent. Across vulnerable districts, work with families is crucial to ensure deep awareness of risks, resources, rights and services. Child survival, health and safety are dependent on people re-imagining civic engagement – empowered to tackle intimidating factors like institutional apathy, inert officials, social hierarchies or feudal practices that have kept poor parents in accepting silence. It takes collective action to ensure that local officials are pushed to deliver better results on child health and safety. Attention, spotlight, political will and investment – this is the kind of backing needed to build child safety systems from the ground up, starting today.
It’s been less than a week since sixty children died and there are plenty of painful unanswered questions that will probably be cleared up over the next few months. But if we hold on to that anger a little longer and sustain the concern, it will also force us to engage with an even harder question: What must we do before it is too late again?
The author, Suparna Gupta, is the Founder-Director of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.