The Rediff Special/Shobha Warrier
IN April 1999, when the Government of India launched Project Childline, Tamil Nadu welcomed it.
It was a laudable effort, simple in operation, aimed at emotionally disturbed youngsters: any child wanting a patient ear could dial 1098, where counsellors were available.
The project started in 24 cities, four of them in Tamil Nadu: Madras, Coimbatore, Trichy and Madurai.
Today it appears that Childline is much abused in Tamil Nadu. Instead of children reaching out for emotional support over the hotline, parents are using it to do away with less endowed children.
This happens mostly when parents abandon their mentally/physically handicapped children at public places and call up Childline, anonymously, to inform it where they would find another 'orphan'.
"Suddenly we see a rise in the presence of mentally retarded children on the streets," says Father Arogyasamy of the Don Bosco Anbu Illam.
"And there is definitely a rise in the number of calls informing us about abandoned mentally retarded children," he continues.
"The hotline was started to help children in distress, children who are abused, who are sad, who want someone to talk to. Unfortunately, it is being misused."
The Don Bosco Childline service for north Madras has received 29,987 calls since it started on April 30, 1999. It has rescued 1,409 children. Of these, 33 are mentally retarded and 12 physically handicapped.
Officials at the Indian Council for Child Welfare too tell a similar story -- the number of less endowed children rescued in the last three years has multiplied. If they picked up 22 mentally retarded and 27 physically handicapped children in 1999, the number was 53 and 39, respectively, for 2000. And this year, they have already picked up 43 retarded and 20 handicapped children.
What prompts parents to abandon their less endowed? Poverty? Yes, but that's not the only reason.
Vidyakar of Udavum Karangal, another non-governmental organisation working with orphans, says the 'social stigma' attached to a mentally retarded child is another reason -- an argument that takes strength from the fact that not just poor families but even well-to-do parents attempt to get rid of such children.
"We always try to find out whether a child is really an orphan," he says. "The saddest part is that 100 out of 100 times, we find that they are being dumped by parents, and they do so only because these children are not normal! It is like picking vegetables from a basket -- you pick the good ones and discard the bad ones!"
"They dispose of the ones who need more care and attention," Vidyakar fumes. "Is it not the responsibility of parents to look after their children whether they are normal or not? Do they think it is the duty of social service organisations to look after them?"
Ramadurai, a colleague of Vidyakar, remembers the day he went to the temple in the morning for about 15 minutes, and came back to find a two-year-old deposited at the front door of Udavum Karangal. Of course, the child was mentally retarded.
"It was quite clear somebody deposited the child there and ran away," he says. "An easy way to dispose of an unwanted child!"
Vidyakar says such parents should be punished. "Unlike in the West, here we do not have any counselling or guidance centres for parents. So they do not know how to deal with such children.
"These are the children who need more care and love. But often, they are tied to a window or a chair, neglected totally. Till such time that parents are taught to take care of them, these incidents will continue."
Most welfare organisations do not have the resources or manpower to take care of the less fortunate. Among the mentally retarded, there are marginally and severely affected -- and the latter group needs individual attention and continuous medication.
And so the Childline service faces the question of what to do with the abandoned children they are notified of.
"Our Anbu Illam is for street children and it is not possible to keep these children along with normal ones," Fr Arogyaswamy says. "We do not have facilities for them here... So, of late, we have stopped picking up challenged children."
There are 15 NGOs in Madras to take care of mentally retarded children. But only two of these receive government funding; the rest all survive on private contributions.
Balavihar, funded by the state, has room for only 75 children, but is forced to look after 250, 80 per cent of whom cannot speak, 25 per cent suffer from epilepsy and 25 per cent are physically handicapped.
"It is very, very difficult. The government is using our place as a dumping ground," an official says. "What we need is to create awareness among parents. They should be taught that family bonding is very important for these children."
The official said the government gives Rs 200 per child per mensem -- a sum that is enormously insufficient.
Manjula, Childline's co-ordinator in Madras, says that unless the government provides funds to NGOs, the much-touted project will continue to have a negative impact.
Questions are aplenty, but just one fundamental question: Who is to be blamed for the current situation? The parents? Or the government for starting a project like Childline without providing for adequate support?
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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