CHILDRENSUPREME ASSET OF THE NATION+
by Justice Shivaraj V. Patil++
Cite as : (2005) 2 SCC (Jour) 55
I feel delighted and privileged to participate in this function. Justice Sunanda Bhandare Foundation has been organising many meaningful functions and activities of quality and utility with special emphasis on the subjects relating to women and children. Late Smt Justice Sunanda Bhandare was an eminent Judge adorning the Bench of the High Court with a great future and potentialities to rise to greater heights in the judiciary but destiny willed otherwise. It is said that even a monarch has to obey when fate summons. Even though she did not live for long, she has left behind her a great legacy to be continued by her family members and well-wishers. As I understand, the Foundation is making all efforts to translate the ideals close to her heart into action.
The topic chosen for the 10th Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture "A New Deal for India's Children" is of great relevance and importance consistent with the theme and aim of the Foundation"The freedom to choose and the right to excel".
Gabrial Mistral, the Nobel Laureate said:
"We are guilty of many errors and faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the foundation of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot; right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer 'tomorrow'. His name is 'today'."
One of the greatest achievements of progressive democracies in the last century is to have recognised the rightful place of the child in the societal fabric. Both in the international forum as well as domestic policies, positive action for the child's welfare is evidenced by way of various United Nations Conventions, State legislations and judicial interpretations. The efforts towards preserving the environment and bringing about sustainable development are aimed at giving our children what is naturally theirs. Child-centric human rights jurisprudence has come to be a new dimension to the larger role of law in social engineering.
Starting with the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1924 by the League of Nations that "mankind owes to the child the best it has to give", there have been many endeavours of the international community in protecting the interests of the child. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 of the United Nations ratified by our country as well, contain legal standards necessary for granting social, economic and cultural rights for children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 1966 are the other instruments that convey the rights of the child.
At the domestic level, India has made good strides in uplifting the position of the child. The Eighty-sixth Constitutional Amendment that made education a fundamental right for children in the age group of 6 to 14 years is a result of the empathy shown by public-spirited individuals and institutions towards the child. Many statutes are in place to make the life of the child easier and enjoyable.
The role and concern of the Indian Supreme Court has been profound in making better the lives of numerous children who were objects of exploitation. The Supreme Court in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India1 had to say: (SCC p. 183, para 10)
"This right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39 and Articles 41 and 42 and at the least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of workers, men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief. These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity...."
The observations made yet in another judgment in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India2 are relevant in the context, which read: (SCC p. 553, para 4)
"4. The child of today cannot develop to be a responsible and productive member of tomorrow's society unless an environment which is conducive to his social and physical health is assured to him. Every nation, developed or developing, links its future with the status of the child. ... Neglecting the children means loss to the society as a whole. If children are deprived of their childhoodsocially, economically, physically and mentallythe nation gets deprived of the potential human resources for social progress, economic empowerment and peace and order, the social stability and good citizenry. The Founding Fathers of the Constitution, therefore, have emphasised the importance of the role of the child and the need of its best development."
The Supreme Court of India in Rosy Jacob v. Jacob A. Chakramakkal3 observed that: (SCC p. 855, para 15)
"The children are not mere chattels: nor are they mere playthings for their parents. Absolute right of parents over the destinies and the lives of their children has, in the modern changed social conditions, yielded to the considerations of their welfare as human beings so that they may grow up in a normal balanced manner to be useful members of the society...."
Every child in the country has a legitimate claim and is entitled to its share in the finances of the republic for harmonious and comprehensive development of its personality. There is a need to enhance the share in the Budget for the development and welfare of children in their interest as well as in the interest of the country. As a plant needs protection, nourishment and proper environment to grow into a big fruit-bearing tree, a child also needs protection, promotion, nourishment and proper environment to grow into a useful and responsible citizen to serve the nation.
Proper health, education and environment for children are the imperative needs of the hour. It is said that a large number of children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhoea and several million suffer from other dangerous diseases. Female foeticide is still a tragic evil in rural India. It is true that the Government is relentlessly working for eradication of diseases like polio, hepatitis and AIDS, but the enormity of the population and incidence of disease have their own negative effects on these sincere efforts. This is natural when the country supports 16 per cent of the global population while it holds only 2.4 per cent of the world's land.
Spending money on education of the child is not an expense on the public exchequer but an asset in the long run. It is the best infrastructure that could be laid for the prosperity of a nation. About 42 million children in the age group of 6-14 do not have access to basic education. Female education, which Palkivala calls the priority of priorities, is hampered not only by the deep-rooted cultural prejudices but also due to lack of real concern. According to the statistics provided by UNICEF, out of India's 7 lakh rural primary and upper-primary schools only one in six have toilets deterring girls from attending school. Initiatives like Operation Blackboard, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and Midday Meal Scheme, etc. have been taken so that school dropout rate is curtailed. But we must also ensure that the policies and efforts to serve the purpose must be consistent and continuous and not momentary promises. Education of the child is inextricably intertwined with the progress of a democracy. Democracy can succeed only with an informed citizenry.
Children are the supreme asset of any nation, they being the greatest gift to humanity. Children are the potential and useful human resources for the progress of the country. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay wrote:
"There is no greater waste in life either in magnitude or intensity than the colossal waste of human talent that goes on for want of the educative stimulant, scientific training and congenial modes of expression."
We should remember and remind ourselves that it is only strong, knowledgeable and virtuous children who can make the country strong and great.
Children are innocent, vulnerable and dependent. Abandoning children and excluding good foundation of life for them is a crime against humanity. Millions of children live under especially difficult circumstancesas orphans, street children, refugees, displaced persons, as victims of war and other man-made disasters. Article 39(e) indicates the State as the guardian of the health and strength of the tender-aged children to see that they are not abused or forced to enter avocations unsuitable to them compelled by economic necessities. We must remember that children cannot and should not be treated as chattels or saleable commodities or playthings. They are in flesh and blood with life as much as we elders are and they are also capable of becoming as great, as good or as useful as we are and even more. Therefore, they are to be provided with all necessary facilities and atmosphere to grow into responsible and useful citizens of the country. For the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, a child should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding. Adults cannot barter away the future of the children. There must be conscious and continuous effort by all concerned to take care of children to ensure wholesome development of their personality.
In my view, all globalisation, liberalisation, modernisation and privatisation must have an element of humanisation so that the human right violations including the violations of the rights of children, if cannot be eliminated, can be minimised. The United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.
If we neglect and do not provide or meet the bare needs of food, health and education of children, heavy price will have to be paid in the future. There is need to make people aware about rights of children and as to the importance of their growing up as responsible and productive citizens. Educational institutions, governments, NGOs and media can play a vital role in this regard. Social communication needs to be stimulated at different levels and through multiple channels across the plural society. This requires sensitive and professional handling in a decentralised manner. Methods and mechanics are to be designed to inform children and parents through the educational system and other media to sensitise public functionaries and opinion-makers. Voluntary organisations could be a powerful means of social mediation and communication in promoting the rights of children and equally in preventing their exploitation and suffering. In a democratic set-up, the most important need is institutional support at the political and policy levels.
It appears that from the beginning of human society children have been exploited mercilessly and indiscriminately. Child labour has been the cheapest and disciplined. Children were made to work at home and outside, in factories and fields, in hazardous occupations, in hotels, restaurants and as domestic aids. Children have been working even at an early age of 6 to 8. Their working hours have been long and their wages have been meagre.
As per the census of 2001, children below the age of 6 years were 157.86 million accounting for 15.24% of the country's population. Their holistic development should be of great concern in their interest and in the interest of the country.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his letter dated 26-10-1930 addressed to his daughter Indiraji wrote: "Be brave and all the rest follows." Children are innocent but defenceless. They are not burdened by prejudice, fears and hypocrisy. They need appropriate attention and proper support to grow well to engage themselves usefully to serve the country. Panditji's great love and concern for children was well-pronounced. The fact that Panditji's birthday on 14th November every year is celebrated as Children's Day shows the importance he attached to children. He was of the view that unless India's women were educated, the future generation of this country would be seriously affected.
Even as on today, millions of children in the metropolitan slums are growing in an environment of crime and drug abuse. Who is to care for them and what is to be done? Ignoring or neglecting children is nothing but wasting a supreme national asset. Many of them, if properly groomed, may occupy various vital and useful positions in all walks of life in the future. If our children are denied basic needs of life such as education, health, food, clothing and shelter, visualise what our country is going to be in the future. We realise the importance and worth of oxygen when it is withdrawn, resulting in suffocation and leading to serious consequences. Neglecting or ignoring the welfare of children and their all-round development may create like atmosphere where oxygen is withdrawn making the life of the country miserable over the years. We have a full-fledged ministry of Human Resources Development and numerous agencies engaged in child welfare work. It is true that the health, education and general well-being of children have received the focus and attention of officials and public but in effect and practice a lot is required to be done yet. In a sense, children are custodians of the glory and greatness of the nation. The proper growth of our children will be a true tribute to Panditjithe builder of modern India. Almost 65 years ago he asked: "Who lives if India dies? Who dies if India lives?" If India is to live, children are to live well.
The Constitution of India articulates the concern for children as can be seen from Articles 15, 24, 39(e), 39(f), 47 and 51-A. The provisions in the Constitution provide right to the children against exploitation through hazardous employment, on free and compulsory education and to make special provisions for them. Numerous laws have been enacted at the Centre and State level for children but what is really needed is their effective implementation with concern and commitment.
Even the concern of the international community for the well-being of children can be seen in the Resolution on the Rights of the Child, unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989. This convention sets legal standards for the protection of children against neglect, abuse and exploitation as well as guaranteeing to them their basic human rights with assurance for their individual growth and well-being. Although there are numerous laws at the national and international level to protect the rights of children and ensuring their development but the ground realities are still not encouraging inasmuch as there still exist neglected children after divorce, ignorance of fallen women, HIV/AIDS affected parents and the child brides, grooms and child widows. These children face exploitation and suffering in the societymental and physical both.
It is unfortunate that over the years after attaining independence, gradually, three evils namely caste, crime and corruption are tending to become cancerous, seriously affecting the governance and development of the country. It is imperative and urgent to prevent them from becoming cancerous. This can only be done by people of competence, character, compassion and concern in all walks of life, in particular, in the field of governance at all levels. Compassion and concern must be like that of a pious woman. Once a pious woman was asked by a lady to tell her, what cosmetics she used to look so beautiful; the former replied sweetlyI use, for the lips : truth, for the voice : prayers, for the eyes : pity, for the hands : charity, for the figure : righteousness and, for the heart : love.
These are not the cosmetics of the body. They are the cosmetics of the soul required for both men and women for the good of the nation and the entire humanity. These cosmetics are not available in any market of the world, however big it may be. They are to spring from within every human being. Children can be inspired to possess these qualities so that when they grow, they should be able to build bridges between man and man irrespective of region, religion, caste, community, language, etc. based on mutual love and trust and not the walls of hatred, violence and distrust. It is both expedient and convenient to infuse these qualities in children from the beginning so that the future of this country can be safe in their hands.
Children being the supreme asset of the country, they are to be looked after and groomed well, not merely on the basis of constitutional or statutory provisions but also with great human touch and concern. We have both obligation and duty towards them. "A New Deal for India's Children", as envisaged and highlighted in the address of the distinguished speaker making positive, concrete and constructive suggestions, is in a way great deal to the nation itself in the ultimate analysis when children take over the reins of this country to govern. If children are of great concern to all those who are in a position to guide their destiny, it will produce great results. The deeds of people, in particular of those in power with commitment and concern for the welfare of children will speak more eloquently than words in the days to come. Growing old is mandatory but growing wiser is optional. Let us exercise our option right now in favour of the latter in dealing with children. Continuous and sincere efforts lead to success.
I express my gratitude to Shri M.C. Bhandare and all those concerned with Justice Sunanda Bhandare Foundation for giving me the opportunity to participate in this function.
+ Presidential address by Hon'ble Mr Justice Shivaraj V. Patil at New Delhi at the 10th Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture on 8-11-2004.
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++ Judge, Supreme Court of India
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1 (1984) 3 SCC 161
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2 (1997) 10 SCC 549
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3 (1973) 1 SCC 840
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