The worst in Uttarakhand is far from over. What is visible is perhaps known to all but the invisible underbelly that is bloating under the aftermath of the Himalayan tsunami that devastated Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts has placed the children in these areas at an unprecedented risk of exploitation and vulnerabilities.
This calamity is just another variant of nature’s wrath that had struck Bihar in 2008, when River Kosi swelled and wiped everything that came in its way, but are there any lessons learnt? Not really, at least there is none in terms of a child-friendly approach towards disaster management. The Government and tourism department would re-build the battered Uttarakhand sooner or later but what about the children who have nowhere to go in the wake of this horrific natural calamity? They are reeling under the constant danger of being kidnapped, trafficked and exploited. The rescue, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation operations lack the much needed child-friendly approach, an outlook that places the overall well-being of children at the fulcrum.
Uttarakhand has suddenly become a hotbed for child traffickers. In fact they could not have asked for more. During such mayhem when thousands get displaced and parents are no-where to be traced, children as lone survivors have horror tales to narrate. Child traffickers sneak into relief camps in disguise as victims or relief workers and lure the unescorted children to other parts of the country where they are made to dwell in a living hell being subjected to physical, mental and more often than not, sexual exploitation.
The responsibility of providing protection, shelter and security to children during such trying times vests on the shoulders of the government. In many cases, local police help child traffickers and abduction rackets conveniently slip by. Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, close to the India-Nepal border has always been a source of trafficking of young girls who are sold as child brides or are forced into flesh trade.
Many children who have either lost their parents or guardians to flash floods in Uttarakhand or have been displaced and separated from their families run the risk of becoming child labourers. Infrastructure has collapsed; hundreds of villages have been cut off from main towns and cities of the state; schools have converted into rubble; the local survivors have lost their livelihood and thus are more likely to resort to sending their children to work and exploitative labour.
Child Labour is widespread in several pilgrim spots across the country and Uttarakhand is no exception. There has been a steep rise in the number of child labourers in the state in the recent years. Children could also be seen picking rag, begging and rendering labour by minding the ponies used for carrying pilgrims uphill. Child Welfare Committees in the state are very poorly equipped. They lack funds and resources that are required to be functional and agile. Most of them do not even have functional offices.
It is being stated that one may never come to know about the actual number of lives that have been lost in Uttarakhand. Therefore, an accurate assessment of children in need of care and protection is seemingly difficult. Children who have returned from the jaws of death need psychological counselling as they will take a lot of time to heal. Tsunami that had hit India in December 2004 had a shattering impact on children. This time around, the situation is no better with children running high risk of discernible psychological disorders.
We will have to face it that all children in Uttarakhand, who have been affected by the disaster, are in deep need of care and protection as stipulated under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 and have to be provided with shelter, medical aid, psychological counselling and overall rehabilitation before they land in wrong hands. Is the law enforcement machinery geared up for this challenge? The entire state, with 13 districts, barely has three child homes that have been opened rather recently. There is not even a single long term child shelter home. Clearly, Uttarakhand does not have the capacity to accommodate the large number of children affected by this mammoth of a tragedy.
The palatial residential bungalows of the British times allocated to Government Officers and the huge circuit houses that are gathering dust must be converted to child shelter homes rather immediately so that integrated care and protection could be provided to children and other people who have been dislodged. ICPS must be launched with immediate effect. Unlike always, the Government this time should come up with a robust child-centric policy enunciating holistic rehabilitation of children affected by such natural disasters. Government must call upon child rights volunteers from across the country including child psychologists to work at ground zero in helping children picking up the loose ends of their lives. The livelihood schemes must be rolled out in a systematic and coordinated manner so that people could start their lives afresh.
Politicians instead of offering help to rebuild the destroyed Kedarnath Temple must put their acts together for rebuilding school and infrastructure in the state so that the life limps back to normalcy as quickly as it gets. The law enforcement agencies and relief operators on the ground must be more vigilant than ever to foil nefarious attempts of child traffickers and abductors to ruin childhoods. The Centre and the Government of Uttarakhand should place the well-being of children at the paramount because broken castles can be re-built but a ruined childhood would make the damage irreparable forever and ever.
(The writer is the chairperson of Global March Against Child Labour)