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  • Writer's pictureChild Rights Centre, CNLU

The Predicament of Ignored Street Children during Covid-19

By Aditi Singh, a 2nd Year, B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam

 
"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them, and that is the essence of inhumanity."

-George Bernard Shaw

Introduction

Childhood is the most precious phase of life. Free from the burden of responsibilities and struggle, a child learns to live vicariously. Unfortunately, the utopian scenario is not guaranteed to every child. The street children are strewn with the struggle to make both ends meet. Consistently living in unhygienic and meagre conditions, they are snatched of their innocence. The peril does not stop here; the worst part is that no formal data could help the country identify the children in distress and help them live a decent and legally recognized life.


The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic added to the existing miserable conditions of the street children. People became hostile, paranoid, and apathetic towards the children living on the streets. The country moved towards its downfall, condemning its future leaders. The number of children on the street is increasing rapidly under the threat of domestic abuse, poverty, lack of medical facilities and abandonment issues highlighted during the pandemic. Beginning from the inaccessibility of clean masks to the inability to reap the benefits of the Government policies, the street children experienced many violations of human rights.


Legal Recognition of Street Children

India does not have a separate and specific law to protect Street children. Street children come under the ambit of a neglected child, as enunciated in §2(2) of The Children Act, 1960. The Act recognizes the needs of such children in detail but lacks proper implementation. Thus, protection and classification of street children in India can be done based on UNICEF guidelines. UNICEF classifies children as Street Working Children, Children from Street Families and Street Living Children. The first category is the safest kind of children, and they spend most of their time on the streets working and earning bread for their family.

Nevertheless, they return home on a regular basis and have the comfort of families above their heads. In the second category, children are comparatively more vulnerable. They, along with their families, live on the streets. Although they have the hood of their families over their heads, none of them is recognized or respected by society. The third category consists of children in the most devastating, distressed and disturbed state. They are the children who have fled from their homes. They live on their own. They labour in small industries, beg on streets, at times steal to ensure they can have at least one meal at the end of the day. They move from place to place, living on streets and abandoned buildings. They neither have their families to support them nor they are recognized by society. Though all the three categories of children are at a disadvantageous stand during the pandemic, the article mainly focuses on the second and third categories of children.


The Grim Situation of Street Children in the Pandemic

They are living on the verge of life and death. Children on the streets live in consistent violation of the Right to Life. While struggling to find food and working to sustain themselves, the Right to Education is also snatched away from them. Forced into labour and menial work, children work in violation of the Labour Laws of the country. No records, no data, no place to express encroaches upon their Right to Recognized and Right to Freedom of Speech and expression.


In the pandemic phase, human rights violations against street children have become a common phenomenon. They are considered criminals and hooligans. Since they are isolated from society for defying public order, street children are considered perpetrators of indecent behaviour and criminal tendencies. Consistent ignorance has led to an increase in disturbing facts and the poor current condition. The consistent nagging and financial constraints at home forced children to move on the streets, begging, being exploited, carrying luggage and making tea to ensure a one-time meal for themselves and their families. The pressure to work and earn prevents them from enabling their Right to Education, enunciated in Unnikrishnan V. State of Andhra Pradesh.


Children, who do not even have a permanent abode, were forced to follow strict lockdown restrictions. Crammed up in unhygienic abandoned buildings and shelter homes, the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution for these children was violated. Street children were seen wearing used masks or no masks at all. Inaccessibility to clean masks, a basic necessity during the pandemic, was the first grievous violation of the Right to Health. Having no one to take care of tender beings, they continued to fight for basic health facilities from the Government. Right to Health was recognized as a Fundamental Right in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India & Ors. Despite these, the Street children did not enjoy the Right. They continued to fight for an ounce of oxygen and medicines during the pandemic. The scare of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the threat of scabies, gangrene, broken limbs and epilepsy became a common practice during the pandemic. Young girls were forced into bonded labour and human trafficking for sexual pleasures. This puts young girls prone to diseases like HIV/AIDS, without any medical facilities to sustain them against the judgement of Gaurav Jain v Union of India. The recent HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017, does not protect marginalized sections like street children.


To add to the perils, the street children could not reap the benefits of the policies and the help provided by the Government. The reason being, these children do not possess the required documents to prove their citizenship. Bank accounts are a fetched dream when they do not even possess birth certificates or Aadhar cards for that matter. The steps taken by the Government were futile. They did not help in uplifting or saving the living conditions of street children. The Government failed to fulfil its responsibility under Articles 39(a), 46 and 47 of the Indian Constitution.


The lack of legislation to protect and legally recognize the street children became a catalyst in their suffering during the pandemic. The consistent ignorance of the young community places India at a disadvantageous stance in violation of the United Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 and the United Convention on Rights of the Child. Due to financial constraints, the shutting down of Child Care Centers and Juvenile Homes left the street children at the mercy of people and their donations. The provisions of the Apprenticeship Act, 1850, and Reformatory Schools Act, 1867, to cater to the needs of neglected, poor and orphan kids, were lost amidst the war against the coronavirus.

The Vienna Convention recommends a special section to cater to the needs of the street children. The Convention on Rights of Child, 1989, is the most important International Treaty that upholds the special needs and rights of street children. India has ratified the same, is bound by its principles. Thus, India should strive to provide a consistent source of income, shelter, food and basic necessities. The current situation is grim and calls for an urgent need for a uniform rule of law.


Prospective Suggestive Measures

Street Children (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2001, was introduced to protect the interests of the street children in the country pretty early. However, the political tussles and the disagreement on the provisions of the same could not lead to the passing of the same. The country is in urgent need of a uniform law to protect street children. A uniform law could cater to the diverse problems that the street children have faced during the pandemic and in general.


The second important step to revolution can be aware and inclusive programs. Society needs to be sensitized towards the peril of children. Pandemic was a difficult time for everyone; it could have been made for homeless and helpless street children had society accepted them as their own. Awareness needs to be engendered in society to uplift the marginalized street children.


Authoritative control and orders are also necessary. The mere presence of awareness and legislative control cannot be helpful in the betterment of the status. The Government needs to ensure, basic amenities are provided, along with the procurement of identification documents. The onus shifts on the Government to uphold these rights. It is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure that they are guided in the right and legal path.


Conclusion

The pandemic was not based around the street children. However, the ignored tragedy of the street children needs immediate attention. Ensuring legal and social protection should uphold the integrity of the street children. In the words of Munia Khan, “Street children are lovely blossoms just dropped from the tree after a heavy storm. Now they need to be put together with a needle and threads of security and shelter to live into a beautiful circle of life’s garland.



 

(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Child Rights Centre.)

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