By Sreenath Cheruvari
Kolkata, 23 May 2006: For 13 year old Malati Das life was an unending struggle. Picked up by child traffickers from her native village in South 24 Parganas, young Malati was sold to a brothel in the red light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata. With help of some local NGOs working in the area, Malati managed to escape, but as she had no birth certificate it difficult to fight her case and prove that she was a minor. As the traffickers closed in on her again, the NGO which was championing her cause managed to bring the matter to the attention of senior police authorities and Malati was saved. She was plain lucky as the NGO worker pursued her case on an individual basis and exerted pressure on the local authorities What about the hundreds of minors like her who are passed of as adults and subjected to a life of exploitation and despair?
“A birth certificate is one of the basic tools to ensure child protection and child rights” asserts Achintya Bhattacharya, Secretary, City Level Programme of Action for Street and Working children (CLPOA) who along with UNICEF is all set to make history by registering and providing birth related documents to over 75,000 children living in the city of Kolkata without any identity. The organization along with UNICEF is in the midst of a massive drive to identify children all over the city and get them registered. More than 90 NGO’s have been roped into the exercise and about 176 investigators have been out in the field for the past ten months to gather information. Till date, the drive has led to the collection of over 50,000 applications for birth registration.
Suman Kumar Singh, programme officer for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation at UNICEF explains that an affidavit would be filed in the Calcutta High Court on behalf of the children to ensure that they are provided with legitimate birth certificates by the Kolkata Muncipal Corporation. He said that the first part of the exercise would be completed by the end of August 2006 while plans are afoot to cover over 100,000 children by the end of the year. It is estimated that out of a total population of 45 million in the city of Kolkata about 450,000 are homeless and living on the streets or in shanties. Conservative estimates put the number of homeless children in the city around 100,000.
The issue of birth certificates will have a decisive impact on the lives of many of these children as it would be easier for them to get admissions to schools, take up professional employment in future and to fight cases of abuse and exploitation including child marriages. Many of the street children are subject to abuse and harassment by law enforcement agencies and are booked under adult laws. The birth certificates would go a long way in providing them cover under the juvenile justice system which will make it mandatory for the children to be sent to remand homes thus providing them with an opportunity to reform themselves.Explaining the process which led to the initiation of such an exercise, Achintya Bhattacharya points out that CLPOA - an organization spearheading the cause of deprived children - was finding it difficult to organize and mainstream educational initiatives for street and deprived children due to the lack of birth certificates.
In June 2005, they along with UNICEF and other stakeholders including the Kolkata Corporation and Kolkata Police held a workshop to chalk out concrete solutions. The meeting recommended a massive registration drive and a detailed strategy was developed to carry out the exercise. A data sheet was designed and about 90 NGO’s were oriented in the process of collecting data.
Moumita of ‘The Calcutta Samaritans’, an NGO working for the upliftment of urban homeless which is involved in collecting data for birth registration under the project explains that the magnitude of the problem has to be seen to be believed. Out of the thousands of homeless families her organization had covered in 102 wards of Kolkata, only three of them had proper birth certificates for their children. As these families live on the streets, they had no facilities to store important papers and even delivery slips issued by hospitals were not to be found. Moumita points out that NGO’s are even pondering over keeping the birth registration certificates in their safe custody and homeless families could approach the concerned NGO whenever they needed them.
Rudolf Schwenk, State representative of UNICEF explains that the initiative is a major step in the state of West Bengal towards upholding child rights as envisaged in the convention of the rights of the child. “UNICEF hopes that this exercise would emerge as a model and would be the first step towards developing sustainable mechanisms within the system which ensure that every child born in the city of Kolkata is registered.”