Are we helping Bihar’s kids reach the stars?

Children’s Day was celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm earlier this week. As usual, most schools in Patna paid lip service to the occasion and organized various ‘treats’ for the children. The Bihar Bal Bhawan hosted one of the most memorable events of the evening, with a spectacular sound and light variety show put up by over a hundred kids.

But is Bihar actually looking at the best interests of the child? There are some who say that times are indeed changing for the better.

Two decades ago, most of the pro-child voices were those of Unicef officials or of NGOs supported by funding agencies, mouthing platitudes about child rights and ‘saving childhood’. The kids of Bihar had their pioneering champions, no doubt, in people such as Augustine Veliath (who conceived and made possible the first Children’s Assembly at the Vidhan Sabha in 2001, when 183 children aged 10 to 17 drawn from different districts of Bihar took over the Bihar Legislative Council’s special assembly hall to hold their own daylong session, with Bihar Legislative Council Chairman Prof. Jabir Hussain as observer. Chief minister Rabri Devi inaugurated the session), and Sanat Sinha who almost single-handedly championed the cause of kids in conflict with the law, endeavoured to have Childline services extended to Bihar.

In that historic Children’s Assembly, the voices of the children reflected their reality. Girls, barely 14 years old, spoke of their fears of violence, early marriage and rape. A boy of 11 years spoke of adults entering their villages and massacring their relatives and family. A street child spoke about policemen treating children cruelly, implicating them falsely in theft cases and of sexual abuse on dark railway yards. The children also focused on issues basic to the state like caste-based and rural violence that destroys life and the child’s future. “Count the number of children who have died of starvation, of terrorism, of caste wars in our own state,” 17-year-old Prem Mukund from Siwan told the house. Who will take responsibility for these deaths?

The children demanded qualitative education and repair of school buildings; urged the government to control the menace of polythene bags and garbage; asked that proper knowledge about health issues and HIV-AIDS be made available to children; and presented an agenda for panchayats. They also spoke on how issues like armed conflict affect them. “No child should be left out” was their plea to those in charge of programme implementation. “Make education in Bihar friendly for all children, especially the disabled,” said Suresh, a blind student from Muzaffarpur. “Instead of making science and maths practical compulsory at secondary school level, visually impaired students could be given alternatives like home science or other skill-based subjects,” he said.

The immediate impact was that the Human Rights Committee of the upper house of the legislature began working on an action plan for the children of Bihar based on the concerns expressed in the Children’s Assembly and guided by the Convention of the Rights of Children.

Twelve years on, at least some of the concerns of the children (most of whom are now young adults) are being addressed. A recent report from the State Council for the Protection of Children’s Rights says that significant progress has been made in implementing the Right to Education Act.

Only this week, the traffic police have turned their attention to making school transportation safer for kids. On Children’s Day, the Patna Police impounded 32 vehicles that ferried schoolchildren for flouting norms. District Transport Officer Dinesh Kumar has made it clear that the schools as well as the parents had a responsibility to ensure that the kids were transported safely. “It’s interesting that police chose Children’s Day to start this drive, and even though it may cause some inconvenience in the short term, it’s great that somebody in the government is thinking of children’s safety,” said Doris Victor, a working mother with two kids.

Tarkeshwar Singh, associated with SARTHI, a child protection organization, points out that the Bihar courts and law enforcement system have become proactive in booking offenders under POCSO. In fact, it was a Bihar court that pronounced the first death sentence under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, he says. The consensus seems to be that Bihar is becoming aware of the needs of her children, and is striving to improve their lot.

“It’s still a long way to go, but we’ve taken those first steps, and we’ll get there eventually,” Kilkari director Jyoti Parihar said, beaming with pride while watching the slightly discordant efforts of a group of kids singing Brotherhood of Man’s “People Over the World”, after all these working-class kids from Hindi-medium government schools had begun learning to play the guitar sometime ago.

And, as the voices of the children at the sound and light show reminded us, “It’s possible for all of us to reach for the moon and stars.” But not without help from the grown-ups!

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