India’s urban development schemes do not take into account issues related to children’s health, education, growth, safety

savethechildA recent report prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and Save the Children, “Forgotten voices”, takes a look at children living in India’s urban areas at a time when India is seeking to capture the attention of the global community for its promising and steady economic growth. Especially focusing on the urban deprived children, it says, to them, more than any other section of the population, “access to basic services such as clean water, toilets, decent education is a daily struggle”. Excerpts:

While the demographic dividend of India (over 65% of the population is below the age of 35 years, and 39% is 18 years or below) is often hailed as the key to the future growth of the country, an inconvenient truth is that more than 8 million children under six years live in slums. That is more than the combined population of the five north-eastern states: Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Unicef’s State of the World’s Children 2012 report states, “The children living in around 49,000 slums in India are invisible”. Half of these slums are located across the five states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

While tremendous progress has been made on the ‘hardware’ front in terms of developing city infrastructure, not enough attention has been paid to the ‘software’ of these cities, especially for its young citizens. Children in urban India, especially those from disadvantaged sections — slum as well as street children, orphans, and people with disabilities — are susceptible to scenarios such as ill-health, poor access to water and sanitation, insufficient education, urban disasters and child protection and safety concerns. The opportunity that urbanisation presents lies in designing the right governance structures, investing adequately to facilitate this growth and ensuring inclusive growth.

A childfriendly city is one that has a system of local governance, and is committed to fulfilling children’s rights, which include influencing decisions about the city, expressing their opinion, participating in social life, receiving basic services, walking and playing safely, living in an unpolluted environment and being an equal citizen. Major urban development schemes in India do not adequately take into account issues related to children’s health, education, growth, safety and participation. The focus may need to be on smaller urban centres where most of the urban population is concentrated (68% of India’s urban population lives not in metros but in towns with a population of less than 100,000).

A review of these programmes reveals that it does not include specific needs of the child, especially the deprived one. In particular, lack of funds for basic services (water supply, solid waste management, and street lighting), civil works (parks and playgrounds, slum improvement and construction of primary schools) and prevention of food adulteration have a direct implication on their growth and development. Urban schemes need to ensure that a sufficient budget is allocated for children. There is also a need to replicate child-friendly programmes through child participation in the governance process, build their capacities, redesign longterm development plans through a child lens and prioritising budgeting and expenditure on issues identified by or which are important for children.


In India, one primary healthcare facility located within an urban area caters to a much higher population when compared to the standard norm of one centre per 50,000 persons. Also there is an imbalanced focus on curative care, and a near total neglect of preventive as well as promotive care. Though we witnessed an improvement in the mortality rates from the previous decade, our research data indicates that all childhood mortality indicators among the urban poor are higher as compared to the overall urban averages — versus 51.9 for U5MR (under five mortality rate), 54.6 versus 41.7 for IMR (infant mortality rate). Moreover, infant mortality rate is still an area of concern, varying widely across cities, ranging from 28 per 1,000 live births in Chennai to 63 per 1,000 live births in Meerut. It is unfortunate that the birth order of the child still continues to affect the immunisation coverage. While 67.4% of birth order-1 children have received full immunisation, only 40.4% in the category of birth order-4 and above received full immunisation. Child sex ratio continues to decline from 935 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991 to 905 girls per 1,000 boys in 2011.

The problem of undernutrition in children is of a serious magnitude in urban India. In India, 32.7% of urban children under-five years of age are underweight and 39.6% are stunted. The difference in prevalence rates is evident in the wealth index, six out of 10 children under five years is stunted in the lowest wealth index as compared to 2.5 out of 10 children in the highest wealth index. Also, 21.5% of newborns in the country have LBW (low birth rate). The other emerging problem of urban India is the rising incidence of obesity, especially among middle and upper middle class urban children. Research by the Diabetes Foundation reports the prevalence of overweight children (14 to 18 years) in the private schools of Delhi is between 29 and 32%.

An estimated 1.8 million children die globally before the age of five from diarrhoea and half a million occur in India. It is reported that 16.3% children suffer from diarrhoea in the two weeks that preceded the survey conducted in order to assess this occurrence. Children living in slums are 1.3 times more likely to suffer from diarrhoea than in non-slum areas. A study from Tamil Nadu reports that a child living in an urban area suffers from about 12.5 illness episodes in a year. Only 26.6% urban households are reported to have access to safe drinking water within their dwelling premises. Approximately 443 million school days are lost as a result of water and sanitation related diseases.

Access to education

Schooling of children has to deal with the elusive triangle of access, equity and quality. While approximately 27.4% of children in the age group of 7 to 18 years reside in urban areas, only 17% of schools are located in urban areas. There are a total of 1.52 million schools in India out of which 14.9% are located in urban areas. The Census 2011 report shows that the child population (0 to 18 years) increased by 12.8% in urban areas during the preceding decade, but a closer look of the report reveals that neither the corresponding enrolment at the school stage nor the number of education facilities and teachers has increased proportionally.

A study of urban slums in Delhi indicated that the ratio of children who have never attended school (i.e. those may have enrolled but have never attended) to the total number of children is 31.5%. Reasons for ‘never attended’ a school range from being underage (46.5%), financial constraints (36.6%) and parents’ negative perception of education per se (10%). Migrations of children with their families further add to the problem as language poses a major barrier to education.

As schools only admit children for a brief period each year, parents face a tough time getting their children admitted. As a result, a large number of children remain out of the education system. The new millennium witnessed the onset of landmark laws such as the RTE Act. The Act has earmarked 25% seats for the underprivileged children, a provision particularly relevant for slum children. How well India is able to harness the intellectual capital of its youth is dependent on the access and quality of education that it provides to its children.

Child protection

The growth of cities gives rise to several child protection issues. There was a 24% increase in crimes against children between 2010 and 2011 and a further 52.5% increase from 2012 to 2013. The million+ cities are major contributors to urban crime. Major crimes against children include trafficking, kidnapping, rape and infanticide. The girl child is especially affected due to the proliferation of sex work in cities.37 Highly urbanised states such as Delhi and Maharashtra are third and fourth in the list of states where most of these crimes take place.

Lack of protection for children on or off the streets was captured rather starkly by the 2007 study on child abuse undertaken by the Ministry of Woman and Child Development. The study covered 2,317 street children as respondents across 26 districts of 12 states from different zones of the country. Of these, 55.3% were boys. Taking both severe as well as other forms of sexual abuse together, 54.5% of street children confirmed experiences of sexual abuse.

Another Unicef report estimates that 27.1 million to 69 million children are exposed to domestic violence in India. In a country such as India, where it is lucrative for employers to employ child workers since it is cheap and labour laws are poorly implemented, the number of urban child workers is huge, though still less than that in rural areas.

Small industrial workshops, small and medium-scale hazardous industries, service establishments, and informal businesses such as ragpicking, porter and vendor jobs are where child workers are concentrated. A large number of children work as domestic helps, suffering abuse and exploitation at the hands of their employers, which is usually away from the public eye. A study on children as domestic workers indicates that almost 70% of children reported physical abuse, slapping, kicking, burning, etc. and 32.2% reported sexual abuse. In addition, there are children involved in prostitution and bonded labour.

A study was carried out in 27 states and two union territories across 135 sites in cities and towns, with 4,024 child respondents in the age group of 5 to 18 years to understand substance abuse. It found that 83.2% respondents confirmed using tobacco on a daily basis. A higher-than-average crime rate clearly means that children in the cities are not only victims to such violence but are in the danger of becoming a part of organised crime rackets, especially when faced with circumstances such as disruption in schooling, dysfunctional family, lack of parental care and exposure to substance abuse.

Impact of climate change

Natural disasters and extreme climatic conditions have a different impact on children than they have for adults and pose a serious threat to a child’s survival and well-being. According to a Save the Children 2008 report, more than 50% of those affected by natural disasters worldwide are children, including urban children as well. According to Unicef, every year, between 2000 and 2009, 8.45 million children under five years of age were affected by disasters in India. Of these, 1.25 million children are malnourished. Eighty-five per cent of the country’s area is vulnerable to calamities and 25 of the 53 million+ cities are located in coastal states.

Cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi face serious threats related to climate change. Recently, the sudden floods in Jammu and Kashmir affected 250,000 children. At the policy level, the Disaster Management Act of India (2005) does not include any references to vulnerable groups, such as children. District disaster management plans do not provide age-disaggregated data on children. The government has not recognised heat or cold wave, a major killer of urban poor living on the streets during the severe conditions, as a calamity. Disaster preparedness in India leaves a lot to be desired both at the policy level as well as its implementation.

Click HERE to download the full report


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