Harmeet Singh, ADGP, Assam Police and Miguel Das, Child Rights Activist and Founder, Utsah Child Rights Organisation spoke exclusively to the sentinelassam.com on issues related to child rights and how children are coping with the lockdown.
Sentinel Assam: How are the children coping with the lockdown
Miguel Das: The first half was good because they were getting the much needed time with their parents and family but in the later half they have been going through a lot of anxiety because they need the open spaces, they need to play and socialise. A large number of children are also facing economic difficulties, facing food scarcity.
Sentinel Assam: Are there any positive news as far as the graph about crime against children is concerned?
Harmeet Singh: There has been a two-third drop in the rate of crime against children because children are home with their parents. Another good thing that has happened is that children and parents in today's time and age do not have time for each other across social strata but during the lockdown we have seen them spend time together and bonding is happening. The crime rates have really fallen. Things are better in Assam. But we in Assam Police will continue to do what needs to be done.
Sentinel Assam: How would you react to the news that there has been a drop of two-third in the rate of crime against children?
Miguel Das: Prima facie it looks very good but since I am an activist and you know activists generally are a little wary about the things that happen beyond what we get to see. Sexual abuse cases, we have got very few reports but cases of physical punishment, mental harassment at home sometimes by alcoholic father, cases of child labour, children working on the streets, on these things we have been getting different reports from different areas of Assam. But because of the lockdown, communication has been disrupted so we do not know what is going on where. However, we do anticipate an economic fallout because of the lockdown, the vulnerabilities in the marginasied communities will definitely increase. We are scared that issues like child marriage will increase because families won't be able to take the economic burden. Cases of child trafficking. In fact, we are hearing that some parents from tea garden areas are contemplating selling their children. Child sexual abuse, because now children are mostly with their parents and they are protected. But what we are more scared now is about the post lockdown vulnerabilities.
Sentinel Assam: What is the policeman's take on points raised by Mr Miguel like the children now being at risk because of the economic fallout of the lockdown?
Harmeet Singh: In bits and pieces I agree with what the activist thinks but then the activist is always glass half empty and I am always glass half full. I start from the positives and then go on to see how we can work on what Mr Migeul is talking about. UNICEF and Utsah are already looking into many of these factors like the ones which often go unreported where parents under the anxiety of whatever is happening now actually gets physically or mentally almost abusive. We are keeping an eye on that. Given the fact that there is less movement outside on the communication side its been easier for us. You would be surprised to know the number of young people including children and teenagers who have taken to social media to connect with us. We are also running tele-counselling helplines, psychology counselling with the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital. We have been getting calls from younger people where they share what is causing stress to them. On our Assam Police helplines also, we have been receiving calls. So overall communication is there. If anything is happening behind closed doors of the house we will get to know and strict action will be taken. We are requesting Gaon Burhas (village headman), village defence parties, RWAs (resident welfare associations) to look at people on home quarantine. After this programme we will request these people to also keep an eye on the children. That is my takeaway from this programme.
Sentinel Assam: Take us through some of the steps being taken by Assam Police to safeguard the children and your take on the fear that children might end up bearing the brunt of the economic fallout due to the lockdown.
Harmeet Singh: As far as Assam is concerned, the economy is working now and you would be surprised to know that a train was taking people out of Assam to another state and despite a large number of people saying they would leave, they didn't. The fact that things have opened up means that part of the economic stress is going down. Talking about the earlier days of lockdown, realising that there would be stress regarding food and medicine, Assam Police was one of the first ones maybe in the country to convert a huge amount of its manpower into a relief force. The Assam Police ensured that relief – food, medicine and even baby food reached wherever it was required and now with economy gradually getting back on track, I think the economic stress would be taken care of.
Regarding what Miguel has said about hearing things about parents in tea garden areas, as an intelligence professional and a policer personnel and having worked very closely with children, until I see hard evidence I would want to work towards a fear or an apprehension to negate it or to find the hard evidence. We would look for that kind of information and the minute we find any such thing we would immediately take action on counselling, rehabilitation and the legal side.
Sentinel Assam: What is Sishu Mitra all about?
Harmeet Singh: Our honourable Chief Minsiter Sarbanada Sonowal along with Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma came out with the concept of 'Maitreyee' which is changing the whole concept of policing from an insurgency-driven one to a citizen-centric delivery system. So, the infrastructure, the soft skills and the technical infrastructure is being turned around. While we were working on 'Maitreyee' the Chief Minister was laying a lot of stress on child abuse cases and then the fast track courts came up and cases moved faster. Utsah and Miguel came to us with this whole idea that when police meets a child victim he can't be in the uniform. So along with UNICEF we designed the jacket and went down to the investigative and police level and trained everyone about how to handle these cases legally and psychologically. We finished first phase of training in the 23 districts sensitising the police, turning the police force into child-friendly police. Sishu Mitra is a joint initiative of Assam Police, Utsah and UNICEF.
Sentinel Assam: Mr Miguel, anything that caught your attention. Something that we have been doing for our children during the lockdown which should have been done differently.
Miguel Das: Some of the private schools have taken initiatives to make education accessible to their children through online interfaces but a fallout of that is a large segment of children who go to public schools are completely left out. There are isolated initiatives by principals and siksha karmees. The other part is though there have been online initiatives, the schedules are pretty messed up like having classes from 9am to 10pm. This is absolutely against child rights. Children are now spending more time looking at the screen which is stressful for a child. It is important to navigate between the child's health and education. Education in class and other activities like gardening and playing too are necessary for a child's proper nourishment and talking, sharing and discussing with parents are equally important.
There is something like corporal punishment. We get calls where children tell us that they have beaten black and blue by the father or an uncle but they do not complain because complaining might land his or her father in jail and the child does not want that. This is something that is happening on a daily basis. What we are doing is we share our childline number 1098 so that the children can reach out to us and get some support in case there is any such situation.