Talking vulnerability: The Child in the City

24 Oct, 2017
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Children, City, Climate change, Disaster, Resilience, Urban

Talking vulnerability: The Child in the City

In the 1970s, India had just adopted its first National Policy for Children. It was to become a hallmark policy among public pronouncement s of countries of the developing world. Among its pledges, it accorded ‘paramount importance’ to the best interests of the child in all matters of dispute.

As of 2013, a new policy replaced the 1974 NPC, and the pledge to paramountacy of children’s best interests was switched with a line acknowledging them as a matter of primary concern.  The new policy, however, did affirm that India will extend its care and protection to ‘all children’ in its territory and jurisdiction. 

In the 1970s, UNICEF headquarters regularly published a periodical called ‘UNICEF News.’ A notable issue carried the banner title ‘The Child in the City.’ It reported eloquently on the uncertainties of childhood in an urban poor setting. There was little good news, quite a number of warnings of the un-protectedness of children of the urban poor, and their growing numbers. Cities, the special issue said, were tending to cater to the rich; steps for their ‘modernisation’ were reducing spaces where the poor could live, and bypassing their need for basic services. Yet, migration into urban areas was growing.   

With this background note, many pertinent questions arise on our understanding of ‘the child in the city’, and the effect of disasters on them. Who are these children of the city?  Why are they more vulnerable? What do we mean by ‘resilience’? Is there more to it than simply ‘being prepared’?

The past few years in the Indian Sub-continent have been marked by aberrations in expected weather patterns. It has rained when it should not, in areas where it ‘normally’ did not, and it has failed to rain when it should, in other areas where it ought to have done so in its traditional season. Floods have broken their own records. Earthquakes are increasing, and choosing new locations. Hill-sides have become unstable, perhaps because of blocked drainage routes. And cities and towns have shown that they cannot cope. Climate change impact is a reality, though hard to say whether it is a cause or an effect.

City administrations add their own mistakes to the blighting of urban areas. The felling of trees has denuded large areas, and unsettled ground spaces that depended on the holding powers of roots and the kindness of green cover. In some parts of the country, water tables have fallen in both fields and city spaces. In other places, water can be tapped just a few feet underground, but the mix of sewage seeping into the ground with the water sources makes its dangerous to use. The fields and forests themselves have fallen to the outward growth of cities and towns. Temperature patterns have been affected. As dust levels as well as air pollution and smog are increasing, so are the risks they pose to health. Many towns and cities are ringed by ‘industrial areas,’ which contribute their own burdens to the viability of urban settlements. The awesome generation and accumulation of waste, and the generally poor disposal mechanisms add filth to other hazards.

Congestion is a serious and oppressive hazard in urban areas, and both construction and settlement are its signs and symptoms. Maintenance programmes and services stand defeated by both un-controlled building and the steady influx of people coming to settle or to seek seasonal work. As older parts of urban settlements become crowded with people who cannot provide or support the upkeep of buildings they occupy, old ownership gives way to squatter occupation, buildings deteriorate and collapse. Many urban dwellers have no roof over their heads. Also among them are children without any adult presence or support in their daily lives.

Risk awareness and risk analysis are one thing, risk prevention another. Risk reduction is yet another, but are we speaking of ‘before’, ‘during’ or ‘after’?  Survivors of risk realities, adults or children, generally have to learn how to cope and to pick up the pieces of their lives. But they do not become vulnerable or needy only when misfortune strikes; they already are.

And protective and caring governance mechanisms require training and orientation firmly grounded in ethics. ‘Resilience’ is to be carefully defined, and the responsibility for “being prepared” like a good ‘Boy Scout,’ should not be assigned primarily to the potential victim of disaster.

The author of this blog is Ms Razia Ismail who is the co-founder and Convenor of the Indian Alliance for Child Rights (IACR). She has served in UNICEF for 23yrs, at Regional and Country Offices. She is a recognised child rights advocacy expert and trainer in India, South Asia and West Asia.

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