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There Are Over 2 Million Children Living On The Street In India: Thomas Chandy, CEO, Save The Children

In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Thomas Chandy, CEO of Save the Children, discusses the various issues faced by marginalized and underprivileged children, the work of his organization in securing the rights of the child, and the future outlook for children

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In a world fraught with inequalities, the rights of the children are extremely integral, to ensure that the future of mankind is secure. In India itself, children suffer from various issues of malnutrition, child labour, poverty, and lack of access to education. In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Thomas Chandy, CEO of Save the Children, discusses the various issues faced by marginalized and underprivileged children, the work of his organization in securing the rights of the child, and the future outlook for children in India and across the globe. Edited excerpts:  

What are some of the prevalent issues faced by underprivileged and marginalized children of today?

There is a global and Indian context to it. What had happened is that during the MDG period, there was a drastic reduction in some of the issues we had been trying to address forth the most disadvantaged children of the world and interestingly during the tracking period (1990-2015), there has been a good decline in poverty, decline in under 5 mortality and maternal mortality across the world. Even in India if we were to look at the health indicator like under 5 mortalities which in 2009 when Save the Children started a campaign called EVERY ONE, our absolute number of children we were losing was very high (2 mn children every year). The underlying causes are malnutrition, leading to stunting, diarrhoea, pneumonia etc. This number has rapidly reduced to 1.2 mn, which is a very good decline. But if you look at the next phase, which is the SDG, the difference now is that the MDG was low hanging fruits, relatively easier to fix. Now when we are reaching out to the most marginalised, these are the people who are also physically very difficult to reach. So the issues we had before still continue, the only thing is that our efforts have further gone down to the most excluded groups of people. We still have a very large number of child population (1.2 mn) still dying in India. Even if you really look at the under 5 mortalities, where exactly is the problem is in the infancy mortality period which is the first year of a child and within that also the neonatal period (first 28 days of a child) is where we are losing most children. In India, we lose 300,000 children on the day they are born, which is again the world’s largest number. Again looking at malnutrition, India has a huge burden. Numbers based on the latest data show that almost 45% of our children are stunted and stunting again leads to mortality as well as huge other developmental issues for future of a child. We know that the first 3 yrs of a child if the child is stunted, the developmental process of a child is irreversible.

Also, looking at education in India, the enrolment in education in India is in the 90s, but what is important to see is what these children are learning and whether these are the right indicators. Reports like ASA look at the level of education and learning and we found out that there was a huge dropout amongst children after the first 3-4 yrs of their formal education. And what they learn in that period is much less. Children who are in grade 4 or 5 will not be able to read simple text from lower grade or lack basic mathematical ability. As of now, the govt data says that close to 6-7 mn children have never gone to school, though the access has improved. And from the numbers who go to school, there is a basic problem in the quality of education or what they learn.

Then if you look at how children are protected in this country, for instance, Save the Children has a huge focus on the street children because of our interest in rapidly urbanising India. The trend has shown urbanisation to be about 30%, while 70% of the people lived in the rural areas. That is rapidly changing. In the next 20-25 years, we will see a trend of 50% of the population living in the urban while 50% in the rural areas. This is also the trend globally. Countries in South Asia and sub Saharan Africa, are rapidly urbanising and the reason why this is happening is that we are moving from being an agrarian economy to a GDP now which is based around urban areas. Our manufacturing and services have moved to the cities. 65% of our GDP comes from here. It is natural that people would migrate from rural to urban and it is a global phenomenon. However, will the infrastructure of the cities be able to take care of the large influx of the people coming there? There is a problem there and the problem is always pronounced for the most marginalised. And amongst them, the children. So if we look at our development indicators, by far the urban indicators are far better than the rural indicators looking at simple things like mortality, education, access to services etc. But in an average, it conceals lot of things, when you desegregate the numbers, you will find there is a problem. Then when you look at the urban poor/ marginalised/ disadvantaged urban population, their developmental indices are much worse than the rural. And we have a global campaign called the EVERY LAST CHILD, and in India we believe that every last child is the child that lives on the streets, lives in the urban situation. In Delhi itself, our study shows that there are 50,000 children living on the streets and overall in India, there are over 2 mn children in street situation. So, we are working closely with NCPCR to find out where these children are and give them identities. One – there is no enumeration, secondly, if you know who they are and where they are, give them an identity. Our identity drive for street children is currently running across 6 cities in India and once they have that they will have that, they will have access to education, health and other govt services will be provided. Also, when you talk about protection, there is definitely a huge amount of violence. The physical and sexual abuse that happens is very large. Our own 2007 report we brought out with the Ministry of women and child, shows that about 60% of the children are physically abused. And we need to make sure that violence against children ends. Save the Children globally also said that by 2030, along with SDGs, we should have 3 breakthrough areas-

  • No child should die from a preventable cause
  • Every child should have a basic quality education
  • Violence against children should no more be tolerated

Violence is connected to both physical violence and also with children who are in difficult situations. We believe that children should be in schools studying and not engaged in any form of labour, whether it is agricultural or any other means. Small children cannot physically take care of it, even if they are engaged in house hold chores beyond 3 hrs along with their school, it is considered as labour and that would develop their development. So we believe that childhood is the time for them to be learning, playing and getting an opportunity and not be in harsh working conditions.

There are several other indicators but these few are our focus areas in the current strategic period and what leads us to the SDGs.

So you’re saying that SDG framework is better than the MDG framework?

I am not saying that its better. SDG is in continuation of the MDG. The problem with SDG is that it’s a lot more difficult to achieve period in terms of its reach. Where do the poor live now? If the MDG covered all the countries to some extent, SDGs would cover more politically fragile nations. For instance, if you look at India, where are the most marginalised? – On the streets. To find who they are and to reach them is going to be a lot more difficult.

How do partnerships help Save the Children generate breakthrough solutions to drive economic development and sustainable impact for the world’s most marginalised children?

When you say partnerships, we look at them from 2 perspectives –

  • We partner with Pvt sector, individuals, and govt. to reach out to the most marginalised children
  • We also partner with grassroot NGOs to implement some of our projects and programmes.

There used to be a time when the overseas assistance development funds, globally, were very strong for poor countries and emerging economies etc. India was a recipient of funds from many bilateral and multilateral institutions. Now, whats happening is that for a country like India, most of these bilateral aids are moving out. If you look at Swedish SIDA or any of these bilateral aids that used to come to India has moved out and globally also overseas assistance development fund, the pot is sinking. So naturally what is emerging to replace those funds is private partners, own govt funds, and large pvt sector funds, who are emerging as natural partners. Now, looking at the CSR law, where 2% of the corporate profits are put into social causes, which was good because where a number of corporates didn’t think of putting their money, they are being pushed to do it. But, even before the CSR law came into play, there have been many Indian companies who have been spending on philanthropy and I think business has got a big role to play and has a much larger role especially in the times now when the bilateral funds are dwindling. We need business to step in not just with the 2%, but if you look at the business opportunities that would emerge from a country that is stable, a country where its poor people have got economic opportunities, so that they move out of poverty and become active participants in the economy…and that is the job of the business. Of course govt would be a facilitator, so partnering with business for NGOs like us is important. And globally, as well as in India, we have a large number of business partners with whom we work not just as a donor-donee relationship, but we work as real partners. For instance, IKEA Foundation – even before the stores came to India, they have been in India for the last 12-13 years, working with organisations like us in reaching out to very poor communities. So there you’ll realise that IKEA foundation’s real interest was not just to sell products, make money and go away, but where ever they are they would like to see that the communities that they are engaged with, see improvement. That’s the kind of long-term vision we would like to partner with corporates and many of our corporate partners are here for the long-term benefit of communities and consumers.

How is the corporate world helping deliver the goals of save the children and how is there a positive return on the investment made by socially responsible companies?

The return, if you look at it the rupee value, is easy to measure. But the social return is long term. Every company in its existence is basically looking for a stable environment, wherein you are able to service your customers and consumers far better. And the number of customer communities who consume your products and services increase in number and that kind of return will not come in a short span of 2-3 years, that’s a long-term thing. And for that to happen, they have to work with the local social and I would say that’s outside of CSR. The CSR law is something that is non-existent in any other part of the world and that is fantastic in that sense., but the amount of money that has come out in the last couple of years is a good beginning but a lot more needs to be achieved. The amount of money that govt of India spends to alleviate poverty is 1000 times larger than this amount. So it should be much bigger than just the CSR money. The lop side of this law is that many corporates would like to spend this money in their own backyards, where their factories and manufacturing facilities are, but is it actually reaching out to where it is most needed? I don’t think so. So I think we really need to match where the needs are and try and connect the CSR funds there.

What are some of the corporates who are increasing visibility and engaging in corporate philanthropy by partnering with Save the Children and how is their global market knowledge for the corporates developed and honed through this partnership?

Their market knowledge about the bottom of the pyramid would definitely improve, because if you are targeting your products at consumers at a certain level, then your market penetration is that level. But if you focus on the bottom of the pyramid at a level where poor communities live, if you were to understand what are some of the mechanisms and economic drivers at that level, working with organisations like us would give them a better exposure to work there. They could also come out with innovative products for poor people, which would also increase their market size. Innovations could help in working with similar organisations like us. For instance, Phillips has come out with a small ultrasound device which could detect pneumonia for the poor people. We have recently tried out a small device on anaemia – which you can hold close to your eyes and it could digitally read your blood count..this is less invasive, new technologies like these could be used with a large number of the poor population. We have a large number of multinational companies since we are a global brand in the NGO sector and work with companies like Reckitt Benckiser, IKEA Foundation, GSK, Coca Cola, Dell Foundation, RICOH, BMGF, NOKIA, and there are plenty of Indian companies too. Also companies like TATAs who have path-breaking business practices that they have put for their employees don’t need a CSR law to spend their money. But again, the CSR law has helped a lot of medium-sized companies to think of a social cause.

Are there any specific programs that you have designed for marginalised communities that you would like to talk about? 

Everything that we do is for marginalised children. Be it nutrition, fighting child marriage, etc. in poor communities. Even to identify these problems in poor communities, we know the states that are there and we work in various states like Odisha, Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, we are working with large number of communities and a lot of that has to do with engaging communities and reaching out with a relevant message and building awareness among them and their children so that children themselves stand up for their benefit. We have lots of programmes designed towards such social maladies. Huge nutrition programs we run across 4 states with Reckitt Benckiser called STOP DIARRHOEA INITIATIVE, as diarrhoea is a big reason for under 5 mortalities because of sanitation and various other reasons. So there are 7 interventions that we do which is a recommendation of the WHO which we incorporate in our program and nutrition is a part of it. We also promote breastfeeding as a practise among new mothers as it also helps fight infections and diarrhoea, we promote the use of toilets for sanitation, vaccinations which are important…etc.

Do you also partner with educational institutions to deliver education to children?

‘WE do a lot of research work. We run a post graduate program (M.A. & Ph.D.) in Jamia Milia University called the EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT on what happens during the early childhood phase to a child, which is very crucial – both for education and any other development. And we use the research evidence in our programs. Say in anganwadis which are integrated child development centres, we are addressing the 0-6 age groups in both nutrition and education, and we are just starting a program in 3 states including Delhi, working on early childhood needs. We work with KGBVs in various states to provide technical support to girls from marginalised communities, a lot of it is for early childhood and primary though.

What is the future outlook of Save the Children and the NGOs working in the arena of children?

One of the things happening globally is that more and more govts are becoming nationalistic, and there is an anti-foreign feel protecting what is important to ‘me as a nation’ and I am not sure if this is going to be beneficial for the poor people. Instead of an international outlook, it is becoming more and more Nationalistic.

As in the words of our founder, Eglantyne Jebb, Children have no Enemies and War is the biggest enemy of Children.


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