A Q&A with Dr. Amitabh Rajan on the Plan For Every Child Initiative

The Plan for Every Child Initiative is Plan India's endeavour to ensure the achievement of rights and development for vulnerable and excluded children, their families and communities. It is the first ever consortium to unite best practices from institutions across the length and breadth of the country and recommend policy reforms to transform the lives of children through engagement with the Government, national and international organisations, UN agencies, technical experts and the children themselves.

Dr. Amitabh Rajan is a distinguished Indian Administrative Service Officer and the former Home Secretary and Additional Chief Secretary of Maharashtra. Here, he shares his thoughts and insights on working to ensure no child is left behind.

Q: As a sociologist, children's rights scholar and senior administrator with decades of experience, you possess a unique perspective on the array of issues surrounding at-risk children. What is the most urgent task facing us as a nation when it comes to protecting and caring for vulnerable and excluded children?

Dr. Rajan: India has an excellent constitutional framework and a strengthening flow of jurisprudential insights from its legal system. However, there are three problems (i) growing inequality of wealth, (ii) residual allocations on care and protection, and (iii) persistence of suffering arising from situations of undeserved want. Our system still has space for discourse; we should avail this opportunity with a sense of urgency and work together in the interest of human emancipation.

 Dr. Amitabh Rajan

Circumstances of apathy on exclusion and vulnerability necessitate rights-based interventions. Rights have to be taken seriously because consciousness of duties at the level of State has shrunk and not shown consistency on matters of rights within families. Cumulatively, it is a wide zone of consideration that puts both State and society to test - State in the domain of law and finance and society in matters of self-introspection and assertion.

We should reach an interdisciplinary conceptual understanding on families at-risk, reflect on the net human administrative experience, and work-out a participative evidence-based strategy on child rights. Children do have rights: there is a whole set of justifications in Legal Philosophy on this. In Legal Theory, there is robust conception of the welfare state, in which State is held to be the ultimate parent of the country (Parens Patriae) and, thus, finally expected to intervene in the best interest of children in need of care and protection.

Q: What top three action points would you suggest for agencies like Plan India to partner with the bureaucracy, public finance, law and other thought leaders to affect child-centred policy influence and implementation? Please also share some insight on infrastructure and capacity building and sustainable allocation of resources.

Dr Rajan: Childhood is a span of 18 years. It is an existence with multiple policy flash-points relating to body, mind and institutional worth. India has a real problem on this count. The first thing we can do is to admit that we have a problem and not hide it. Outcomes of India's capability-building performance on child rights are worrisome and there is a definite scope of improvement professionally. Inter-sectoral conceptualisation on child poverty is weak everywhere. We must, therefore, build a wide public-interest professional alliance on the strength of well-researched advocacy for children in difficult circumstances.

Service delivery also needs our attention. India has institutions, but there is a serious accountability problem in service delivery to children needing care, development and protection. We only have to go through the (i) Performance Audit Report conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on the implementation of the Integrated Child Development Service Scheme [2012-13], and (ii) Remarks of the Supreme Court of India on the functioning of the Juvenile Justice Institutions [Writ Petition (Civil) No. 406/2013] to realise this. Legal and financial services to children are in a state of mess and need accountability-crafting in systems, procedures and standards of performance.

Dr. Amitabh Rajan

Sustainability is the third dimension of the road-map. We cannot claim to have given justice to our future generations unless we work with the vision of sustainability. Imprudence on sustainability affects children most - whether it is environmental degradation, space-congestion, quality compromise, fiscal indiscipline, systems erosion, lax regulation or populist experimentations with public policies. A 15-year global vision on sustainable development came out on 25th September 2015. The task before us is to internalise this vision in India's strategies of investment and development and get a coherent public statement on 169 global targets without further loss of time.

Q: You are a vocal proponent of effective, evidence-driven social justice, care and protection. What steps do you recommend taking to foster a universal, accountable system that conforms and embodies these values and practices?

Dr. Rajan: A stage in legal theory has come when we can, without hesitation, pin our hopes on rights-based morality and a universalist understanding of it. Values and practices in societies are important only to the extent they expand opportunities for growth with dignity; otherwise, as John Rawls said [A Theory of Justice (1971):p.3], justice is the first institutional virtue, and anything that does not conform to the principle of dignity and fairness should be reformed or abolished. On these grounds, there is no scope for intrusion of religion in civil rights or class-bias in wealth-accumulation arrangements.

We can understand these issues better if we turn towards social and legal theories of our time on empowerment (e.g. Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth) and wisdom from the best practices in comparative law and jurisprudence on social work for children (e.g. John Eekelaar and Neil MacCormick).

Q: In terms of the status quo of family law - children's rights within the family and the ambit of the judiciary and law enforcement - what measures should we in the public sphere, legal experts and enforcers institute with respect to universal law and civil and family courts?

Dr. Rajan: We should mobilise support for the implementation of Article 44 of the Directive Principles of State Policy of our Constitution (i.e. Uniform Civil Code for its Citizens) and change the status quo. It is an unfinished humane task for India, particularly from the vision of rights within the family and justice to women and children. Another major task is to mobilise holders of political power to implement Article 39 - an Article of our Constitution that carries with it a strong conceptualisation on child welfare, economic system and end-objectives of the State.

There is one more point we should never forget. Families engulfed in the ocean of turbulent economic history deserve better treatment. They also need firm hands of the State to protect them from the market of unconscionable gain and moral and material abandonment of their children as a result.