I have a dream

In 1963, these three words enshrined the values of civil rights, as Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the civil rights of African American population. Finally in 1965, around 20 million African Americans gained their right to vote after decades of violent struggle.  Similarly in the United Kingdom, women did not enjoy full equality in terms of voting rights until 1928. It took years of Suffrage movement and volatile struggle to ensure voting rights for more than 20 million women above 21.

There is a reason voting rights are so coveted. They form the foundation of civil rights in a democracy. They are the expression of citizens’ aspirations, and they give citizens a partial control over their collective destiny.

India has never denied any group of their civil rights on the basis of their race, ethnicity or gender. However, India has failed a group of 20 million people due to sheer indifference.

According to an SOS survey, India is home to 20 million orphan children, out of whom 99.7% happen to be abandoned.

And, most of those children are denied of the right to vote.

During a programme of Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), an associate named Aditya told us that orphan children cannot vote, since they find it impossible to get a voter’s id. Aditya himself has never been able to vote due to the same reason.

He further informed that there is no procedure for orphan children in the first place. It seemed unreal. But, Election Commission officials confirmed it. There really is no procedure that enables orphan children a simpler passage to voter’s id, passport or driving license.

The primary reason behind this exclusion is lack of documentation. Many orphans cannot even prove their nationality. When authorities find an abandoned child, they leave the “nationality” column empty in their report. The reason, they say, is that it is impossible to ascertain whether the child was born in India or not. It is the same certificate devoid of any identity, which the child has to produce while acquiring future identifications.

It only marks the beginning of a lifelong hurdle.

In India, barring some exceptions where private or missionary orphanages go beyond statutory obligations to guide the child for a good part of his or her life, orphan children are taken care of only until they are 18. Once they become adults, they are on their own.

Thanks to lack of identification, even a contract as simple as rent contracts becomes a tough task. Where is your passport? Where is your ID proof? They hardly ever have an answer to such queries. It shrouds their higher education aspirations and employment opportunities.

A lot of them never find their path thanks to obstacles present at the very beginning. Some try their best, and fall dishearteningly short. They face an existential crisis, and many of them never overcome it.

To put it simply, basic civil rights of orphan children in India are severely compromised, as their identity and their rights to a good life and to opportunities remain riddled in red tapes.

It is a huge violation of article 21 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees the protection of citizens’ life and liberty.

Efforts So Far

There have been some efforts to change this situation. However, they have lacked the support of governments.

In 2011, Pune based advocate Mr. Rajendra Anbhule filed a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in the Supreme Court of India, which emphasised the lack of mechanisms to support and empower orphan children after they become 18. He also stated the lack of procedures that could offer basic documents to orphan children.

Supreme Court, during the process of PIL, issued a notice to union government, 28 state governments and 7 union territories, asking them to file their reply to the PIL. So far, only a few of them have done so.

Only Maharashtra Government took a positive step, and passed a Government Resolution in July 2012. The GR grants a provision of a identification certificate to orphan children. Government also decided to give 1% reservation to orphans in employment and education. As of this moment, Maharashtra government has notified local bodies to verify the background of every orphan child. Adv. Anbhule is confident that the GR will indeed be implemented in 2014.

However the absence of response from other 35 bodies highlights the complete apathy of Indian system. There has been no intent on the part of central government to improve the status of civil rights of orphan children, which is a signatory to United Nations’ “Declaration of the Rights of the Child” (1989) and “Convention on the Rights of the Child” (2006), both of which explicitly emphasize the rights of children.

A Three Dimensional Failure

The neglect of orphans is a failure of politicians, who are supposed to set the agenda. It is a failure of the bureaucracy that is supposed to implement it.

On the political front, there has been complete silence on this issue. No politician has even acknowledged this problem, forget addressing it. It’s almost as if they don’t care. Otherwise when millions of illegal immigrants are getting full citizenship on the basis of forged documents due to political consideration and vote bank consolidation, why would the children of this land be left in lurch?

Indian bureaucracy, on its part, has a serious deficiency of human element. Anything that does not please their pace is often ignored. Corruption is rife. And red tapes flourish like cactus in the name of procedures. There have been instances of bureaucrats demanding bribe from orphan children for processing their documents. When, when they cannot do it, they point the finger at lack of governmental direction.

It is a viscous circle of appalling ineptitude, which leads to empty promises, lack of transparency and shoddy implementation.

In 2005 the government introduced “National Plan of Action for Children 2005” on the lines of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The action plan is full of promises. In point 7.1.1 (page 18) it promises to ensure full opportunities to all children in the age group of 13 to 18 years to realize their rights and their full potential. Point 7.2.2 then states the firm intent to develop qualities of Citizenship amongst all sections of the adolescents.

The fact, that there was a need to write to this article, pretty much highlights the success of the implantation of these proclamations. The intent to instill values of citizenship, while denying proper citizenship to millions of children, is utterly hollow too. Moreover, the document doesn’t mention “civil rights” even once. There is no concrete provision for the empowerment of orphan children, either.

Lastly, it is a failure of welfarist approach of the state. Government has doled out innumerable soaps in the name of welfare and for the cause of votes, and without ever stopping to look at how and where the funds are being utilised. It has never made an effort to empower weaker sections of society, and to ensure every citizen enjoys full civil rights.

It is a three dimensional failure that encompasses governance, system and its obsolete philosophy.

The Way Forward

Political intervention:  The need of the hour is political intervention, since politicians are the ones who dictate the policy. Everything else comes later. We are going to try to send this article to some politicians. If one them reaches here, the please consider our earnest plea for some show will and intent. Even that would be good enough.

Federal Protection of Civil Rights: As adults, orphan children are often lost. They lack support, guidance and opportunities. Government of Maharashtra has taken a good step in ensuring a reservation and issuing a certificate that will protect their identity. Other states can certainly follow the suite. While states ensure provision of opportunities in accord to the population of orphans, the central government on its part can play a huge role in empowerment of these children. Investment in the skill development of orphan children is a good way to begin with.




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