25 Jul 2013

Wanted for India’s Midday Meal Scheme: A CHILDLINE

*Ingrid Srinath

Is there anything that hasn’t yet been said about the tragic deaths of 23 children in Chhapra, Bihar? The sad event has triggered long overdue, public examination of India’s much vaunted, and much needed, Midday Meal programme. There has certainly been no dearth of opinions on the merits and deficiencies of the scheme. Conspiracies have been alleged, hands wrung, petitions launched, fingers pointed and stirring testimonials to the programme’s necessity and efficacy proffered. But a national programme that keeps malnutrition at bay for over 100 million children needs more than partisan posturing, pious promises, pedantic prescriptions or profit-driven panaceas. 

There are hard questions that India, and Indians, must answer. Why have the gains of three decades of growing prosperity left hundreds of millions in desperate penury?  Why have we failed to keep pace on key development parameters with nations far poorer than us, whose economies have grown far more slowly? How do we propose to build robust, sustainable solutions for the provision of public goods and services that deliver for all Indians? What kind of social contract do we collectively desire?

After the television cameras have moved on and the public gaze diverted to the next scandal or scam, it remains uncertain that this vital programme will see any improvement to its efficiency or effectiveness.

Unless we focus squarely on the real deficit we face as a nation - accountability.

Where in the labyrinth of schemes, programmes, national missions and commissions do the parents of those 23 children, and hundreds of millions like them, rendered powerless, find justice? How do we bridge the yawning chasm between the promise of rights and their realisation through bureaucratic channels that are all too often corrupt, inefficient, disempowered, apathetic or absent? And how do we ensure that the enormous sums of money spent deliver value to those most in need?

A good start would be independent, national mechanisms to monitor, facilitate, co-ordinate and evaluate the design and delivery of such programmes. The system CHILDLINE is familiar with is the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) which, despite its many lacunae and shortcomings, could provide a possible template. Like the Midday Meal Scheme, the ICPS envisages a constellation of players – public, private and citizens – working together to ensure key rights and protections to India’s children. Also, like the Midday Meal programme and every other national programme serving India’s children, the ICPS is chronically under-resourced, plagued by absent, inadequate or dysfunctional infrastructure and subject to corruption and apathy.

What the ICPS has, however, that these others lack, is a publicly funded, independent, national mechanism in the form of CHILDLINE that works across and with all our systems of child protection: juvenile justice; protection of children from sexual offences, sexual exploitation and child marriage; programmes for children with disabilities as well as those for street children and child labourers. CHILDLINE links millions of children in need of care and protection or in conflict with the law, with providers of legal, medical, physical, psycho-social and, where possible, financial support that they need. We energise unresponsive elements of this vast machinery, lubricate the interfaces between its parts and fill the crevices between them. We help to train the system’s many operators, transfer best practices and learning between them and hold them to account where necessary. We reach out to children wherever they are to build awareness and seek input. We collaborate widely with entities across sectors to enlist the best partners in government, business, technology, civil society and media to develop solutions. And are ourselves subject to scrutiny by our donors and partners, not least the Ministry of Women and Child Development. 

Most critically, however, CHILDLINE is an unwavering champion of children.  From the first report of a child at risk, through the process of ensuring a speedy response, ascertaining facts and exploring solutions, to tracking that child’s progress towards a satisfactory resolution and, finally, advocating for policies based on concrete experience and data, CHILDLINE remains singularly focussed on the needs and interests of the individual child. Most other elements of this vast system either, have other responsibilities besides children, or focus on a few aspects of a child’s rights. Some are limited by geography, others by capacity. Most are disconnected from each other. Few are accessible to citizens in general and to children in particular.

It is a credit to CHILDLINE’s founder, those who’ve led and managed it over the 17 years of its existence, the thousands of staff and volunteers who deliver its services around-the-clock every single day and to those who’ve nurtured and supported it in government, business, civil society and the media that it has maintained its unrelenting focus even as it has grown in scale and scope from a single city to 291 towns and districts within reach of almost 300 million children. With the attention and investments promised under the 12th 5-year Plan CHILDLINE will, over the next few years,  cover every one of India’s districts and all our almost half a billion children. 

If India is to deliver social protection and inclusive public services that harness the distinct strengths of state, market and civil society to all its citizens it might do well to examine this model. Perhaps what India’s Midday Meal Scheme needs is a CHILDLINE.

*Ingrid Srinath is the Executive Director of CHILDLINE India Foundation.