Little Hidden Faces

The latest Census of India revealed that Meghalaya has recorded a decadal population growth of 27.82%, which is the highest among all the other states in India. A common contention is that this increase is primarily due to the phenomenon of illegal immigration. However, a probable factor for the rapid population could be the high total fertility rate (TFR) of Meghalaya (almost 3% or about three children per women), which in fact is the fourth highest in the country. A rate of two children per woman is required to sustain the current population level. This rate, in my opinion, could very well be the cause of the rapid population growth. Depending on the context, an expanding population can have tremendous political, social and economic implications, not always disadvantageous.

But the fact that the state has been categorized in the least developed category does not allow many positives to be gained from the increase in population. And with a large proportion of the state’s population living in poverty, it only gets worse. However, my concern in this piece is not to go in to the macro understanding of how this rapid increase in population affects the state’s polity, society and economy. Instead, I wish to bring in to attention the plight of a certain section of the society, whose present condition as well as future prospects is at jeopardy due to the high fertility rate. This group is the child population of the state.

The child population (0 to 6 years of age) constitutes almost 1/5th of the total population of Meghalaya. Generally, it has been observed that poor households in developing countries tend to have larger families. This is primarily due to the fact that children are the only important economic asset that is available to the poor families. Since they start earning income from a very early age, having a larger family in this sense is intuitively beneficial for improving the economic standard of the poor families. There are also many other factors that lead to high fertility among the poor households, an important one being the lack of awareness because of low education. The most significant implication of this set-up is the concern that, the majority of the increase in child population is taking place among those groups of the society who are unable (by their circumstances) to ensure the proper care and development of a child. As a result, the children suffer in two ways, viz., firstly, they lose something of their childhood; and secondly, their future is threatened as well. I will try to elucidate by narrating my own personal experience from my PhD field study.

A couple of years ago, I was staying in one of the villages that I had selected for my study. The headman of the village was quite gracious in accepting me as his guest and he also offered his help in introducing me to the households for their personal interview. It was quite late in the evening and I was about to finish my interviews and retire for the day when the headman took me to a house that looked dilapidated and in need of urgent repair. The house had no electricity and the single room was lit by the light of a kerosene lamp. It was quite dark, when I entered the house to interview the family. The whole family (both parents with two young girls – less than 15 years old) had just returned from the forest after another hard workday. Their hands and feet were covered with mud and dirt; their clothes were torn and tattered.

During the interview, apart from asking questions on domestic water collection and use pattern (my research problem), I also inquired about the various problems being faced by the family. Of the various issues that were discussed I was very much concerned about the education of the young girls. For me education is one of  the most important ways to get away from a life of abject poverty. The family informed me that the girls were presently attending the morning classes in the village school. But for higher classes they would need to go to another school which is more than two kilometers away on foot. I tried to persuade the parents to continue sending their children to school by apprising them of the various opportunities that higher education provides for the building a better future. To further encourage them I told them of my scholarship and the different incentives provided by the government to promote higher education. They seemed convinced but I also realized that it would be very difficult for the family not because of the lack of effort but because of the circumstances of their lives.

Let me describe in brief the daily routine of these small girls. They have to wake up very early in the morning; help in the household chores; go to school; after coming back join their parents to work in the forest; come back in the evening; and again help in the chores, before going to bed. In between they would squeeze some time to play with their friends. In most of the poor households I have visited, this story repeats itself. Sometimes I would not find the parents but only the children left behind at home doing the household chores. Apart from working at home, children would also work outside their homes. On the way to the village, I would regularly come across women breaking stones in the quarry. The smallest of their children would be playing nearby in the dust while the elder ones would be helping their mothers. This way of life is a daily routine for many children of the poor. To understand how this affects the present status and future prospects of these children, let us look at a common household activity, namely, domestic water collection.

In many instances, I found that, apart from the elder family members, the collection of domestic water is often undertaken by the children. Sometimes the task falls solely on them. Some domestic activities like washing could be done at the source itself, and many children would spend a substantial amount of time washing clothes and utensils. Poor households have little water storage facility and as such the children have to repeat the task of water collection daily. This consumes a lot of time which is spent not just in making the trips from home to the source and back, but also in waiting in line. Particularly, when nearby sources dry up in the winter months, children have to travel farther distance and wait longer at the source.

These and the other physically strenuous activities that a child undertakes, apart from physical exhaustion and the danger of injury, severely hamper their play and recreation time. The children, as a result, have hardly any time or inclination left for studies. These factors combined with highly deplorable state of the education system in the rural areas, makes certain that many of the children from poor families would perform badly in their academic life as well. As such, most of them will be unable to go for higher quality education because they do not have the required grades to make it to those quality institutions. It is undoubtedly very difficult for such a child to compete with children from well-to-do backgrounds who are able to attend regular schools and also have ample time to develop their other faculties. Success stories from humble backgrounds are not unheard of. But I am not concerned with such rare cases. In fact, a single child left behind is still a failure.

Having a good start in life is very important for a strong future. But for these children born in poverty there is no escape from the cycle. For many, the only options available are to either stay back in the village and continue with the occupation of their parents, or migrate to the cities and engage in menial jobs. Finally, they will be subsumed in the growing mass of poor and wretched people living on the margins. Remembering those shy, happy faces it is painful to imagine such a future for them. But it is a future that awaits thousands of our children.

What is the solution? How do we bring out our children from this quagmire of misery? To be very honest, I do not have the solution. The problem defies the comprehension of a single individual. It requires the collective knowledge and collaboration of a multitude of intentions. But before that can happen, it needs to be brought in to the daily public discourse. My aim here is not to invalidate the other causes, but only to bring to light a cause that does not catch the gaze of popular attention. These children have become an invisible section of society that merits little attention, unless something unfortunate like human trafficking takes place. In the meantime the silent destruction of their childhood continues.

In the evenings, whenever I took a walk around the village I would find the smaller children running around and playing among themselves. I would take their pictures with my digital camera and show those to them. Upon looking at themselves, some would burst in laughter while others would blush in shyness. To me these pictures reveal the joy, innocence, and free spirit of a child; their laughter borne out of a happiness that is not tampered with any regret of the past or the worry of an uncertain future. But amidst all this joy, are hidden many painful truths as well: the truth of their hard life, the inevitability of their difficult future. It is this that needs to be changed. It is this impending reality that needs to be altered. But to begin we must recognize the existence of the problem. In conclusion I would like to say that the state of the children today is an indication of our future tomorrow. If they lose their childhood today we lose our future tomorrow.

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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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