Written By: Sohini Bhattacharjee, Officer Communications
Bablu was the youngest amongst half a dozen vegetable vendors who lined outside Mona Cottage every day, a working girls hostel in a south Delhi locality. Dressed in a tattered green colored t – shirt and blue half pants, the boy would stand with his hand drawn cart at his usual place under the neem tree. Bablu with a constant smile on his face would greet any known face who would pass by through the day, sometimes with a twinkle, others by screaming a ‘Namaste’. A laborious little boy that he was, his shop would barely shut for a couple of hours in the afternoon; the routine was impeccably maintained through the seasonal extremities of the city. Naturally, Bablu’s affable nature and engaging conversations ranging from his knowledge about how to identify good vegetables, apt ones for seasonal consumption, his days in his village and many more such stories attracted him the most customers. The very reason he was bullied for by the irked older vendors which though made no dent on his confidence, the boy was a charmer. Currently staying in a squatter settlement near a roadside with few other migrant families, he was a natural talker.
In one of his long engaging conversations, he shared his reasons to not attend school. ‘Mere gaon main sukha hain. Khet pe khana nahi aata. Dadi, Amma aur Choti ghar pe hain. Baba ne kahan kamai chaiye, isilye main aur woh sheher aa gaye (There is no water in my village, the land no longer gives us food. Father and I have come to the city in search of living. Grandmother, mother and little sister have stayed back at home)’, shared the 11 Year old.
His eyes betrayed no emotions of longing for his home.
Such stories of missed childhood are not an exception in a context where more than a quarter population of the country is severely affected by drought. However, as drought itself is an obscure issue for most of the country, the affected population is as much invisible. And even if in the midst of such fallacies, if at all discussions on drought occurred, it mostly covered more large scale issues like farmer suicides, alarming rate of distress migration, drying water reservoirs of the country. A major chunk of the population from the drought hit regions comprises children, numbering to around 16.3 crore, but their conditions and concerns are least being talked about.
When water stress uproots families and they flock to the cities in search of earning livelihood, children are often left behind to care for the household. For many such children, this marks the blowing of whistle for entering into adulthood. Burdened with the responsibility of running the household, their days are spent mostly on fetching water from distant sources, preparing food for the household, look after the elderly and younger siblings; tend to the livestock and the field. The degree of stress is scarring at the least, impacting their physical, cognitive, emotional and academic growth. Unable to cope, many children drop out of school and the fortunate ones who don’t, start faring poorly in their studies.
In more distressful times, many children often become victims of the worst form of exploitation such as trafficking, prostitution, child marriage and child labour. Such heinous exploitation occurs sometimes in the absence of guardians of children, or when starvation forces families to trade off a child for the sake of a filled bowl.
In a recent article by Kailash Satyarthi, Child Rights Activist, he expressed the concern that child marriage has increased rampantly in the drought affected states. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of state-wise missing children brought to the fore that more than half of these children in India come from the drought hit states. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the two most drought-affected states comprise one-fourth of the country-wide missing figure
More shuddering is the news of child fatalities that has been on the rise in the drought affected states. In times of water scarcities, children are often pushed to the edge for fetching water. In the fulfilment of this duty, several children have succumbed to heatstroke or died by falling into the well. A couple of months back, one of the leading English dailies reported the death of a 12 year old girl from Beed district Maharashtra while fetching water from a hand pump. Yogita Desai, a resident of Sabalkhed village in Beed, was dehydrated after she made five attempts to fill water from a hand pump when the day’s temperature was 44 degrees Celsius. Similar, was the fate of 11 year old boy Sachin Kedar who died after he fell into a well while trying to fetch water in Maharashtra’s Beed.  Similar, cases of child deaths have been reported from Madhya Pradesh, where a 10 and 12 year-old boy drowned in a well. The deceased children belong to Sendhwa village from Barwani district. Such stories of wiped childhood leave one heartbroken especially no one should meet such tragic fate in the pursuit of accessing what should be an easily accessible basic survival need.
The times of drought are also times of extreme hunger and food insufficiency for children as the family income and yield decreases, which leads to severe nutrition deficiency amongst children. In this regard, the Supreme Court order which makes it mandatory to provide midday meals during summer vacations in ‘drought-affected areas’ comes across as a strong social verdict. Many among India’s 1.3 million anganwadis and 1.16 million schools are fighting the drought, making sure that children get food and water even during the harshest months. However, the concern remains that to what extent the order is being implemented in exactitude and in practice how many children it is benefitting.
Besides food crisis, serious fallout of water catastrophe especially in rural areas is the emotional trauma that the children internalize. Sudden exposure to extreme poverty, shouldering strenuous responsibilities at home, death and separation from parents leave a grieving childhood. Many children are rendered orphan owing to spate of farmer suicides or are forced to part from their families as there is an upsurge in migration. It is even beyond our capacities to gauge the deep wound such mammoth tragedies leave in their child minds and the possible emotional repercussions, especially in the harsh times where the