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A programme without a plan

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

GOVERNMENT schemes launched without considering their implications or addressing the basic issues involved point to populist intentions rather than a desire to solve problems. The 18-Point Programme for the Welfare of Women and Children, launched by the Tamil Nadu government on December 21, 2001 is a case in point. It was designed by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government by adding three more points to the Dr. Jayalalitha 15-Point Programme for Child Welfare, which was conceived when the AIADMK was in power during 1991-1996. Tamil Nadu can indeed take credit for being one of the few States that have taken up such schemes, but the government has apparently failed to make them meaningful or sustainable.

In order to implement the programme's stated goals of empowering women and improving the condition of children, particularly girls, the AIADMK government has revived several schemes that it launched between 1991 and 1996. The 18-Point Programme aims at eradicating female foeticide and infanticide, improving the situation of adolescent girls, ensuring childhood care and development, eliminating diseases that can be prevented by the use of vaccines, and ending child labour. According to the government, the emphasis is on ensuring not just child survival but the balanced growth and development of children. However, larger issues such as compulsory universal primary education, comprehensive public health- and child-care infrastructure and the abolition of dowry have not been addressed. Without addressing these issues, any attempt to empower women and improve the status of the girl child will be futile.

Implementation of the programme will involve the departments of Education, Health and Labour and will be monitored through a three-tier system which will include a State-level panel headed by the Chief Secretary, a committee of heads of departments under the chairmanship of the Commissioner of Social Welfare, and district-level committees headed by the District Collectors. According to Social Welfare Minister B. Valarmathi, under this programme the government will take the responsibility for the child, especially the girl child, from the embryo stage to marriage. However, the government's claim that the Programme was worked out after several rounds of discussion with experts and the heads of various government departments appear to be hollow. On December 10, two women handed over their two infant girls to the Collector of Salem district, raising fears that the government might end up unwittingly encouraging the abandonment of children. Unwanted girl children may simply be handed over to the government.

Such children will escape death, but their future is bleak. It is easy to set aside Rs.12.96 lakhs to set up "reception centres" in Madurai, Theni, Salem and Dharmapuri districts. But between 1991 and 1996, owing to the lack of basic infrastructural facilities such as emergency medicare at these reception centres, over 70 of the 143 girl children, who had been left in cradles in Usilampatti and Salem, died.

In 1999, some 3,000 cases of female infanticide were recorded by Primary Health Centres (PHCs) in Tamil Nadu. Assuming that the number has not increased since then, the amount set aside by the government for each child works out to about Rs.400 a year. This is barely enough to buy a cradle, leave alone meet expenses on food, clothing and medical treatment. Further, the children left in the cradles are often placed for adoption. It is doubtful whether there is adequate infrastructure and the political will to ensure that everything is above board at the adoption centres. None of these issues seems to have exercised the planners of the scheme. Among the schemes that have been revived as part of the 18-Point Programme is the Puratchi Thalaivi Dr. Jayalalitha Scheme for the Protection of Girl Children of 1992. As per the scheme, for every girl child in the zero to four age group who belongs to a poor rural family (and if she satisfies five criteria, including that her parents should not have a son and one of the parents should have undergone the sterilisation procedure before the age of 35), Rs. 2,000 would be deposited in a special public fund maintained by the government. "Some amount" (officials who were contacted by this correspondent were not sure how much) was given to the beneficiaries' families periodically. And, when the girl reached the age of 20, she would get Rs.10,000 either to pursue higher education or to get married. A sum of Rs.4 crores, which would cover 20,000 children annually, was allocated for the scheme. But to cover female children born in poor rural households alone it would require at least Rs.32 crores every year (at Rs.2,000 for 1.6 lakh children, the number of female children born every year in poor rural households in Tamil Nadu). This excludes the eight lakh children in the zero to four age group who belong to poor rural households.

In 1997-98, the scheme was modified and Rs.3,000 was deposited per child if it was the only girl in the family, and Rs.1,500 each if there were two girls. At the age of 20, the former category would get Rs.58,000 and those belonging to the latter category would receive Rs.29,000 each. However, no money seems to have been allocated specifically for this purpose as by this time a new government (of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) assumed power and that caused most of these schemes being put on the backburner.

When the AIADMK returned to power in May 2001, the government revived the scheme and increased the deposit amounts. As per the modified scheme (announced in December 2001), the only criterion for a family to receive financial aid is that one of the parents should have undergone a sterilisation procedure. As much as Rs.20,650 would be deposited in the name of the girl child if she was the only girl in the family, and Rs.14,450 each if there were two girls. From the time the child turned five, Rs.150 would be given to her every month for schooling. At the age of 20, the girl child belonging to the former category would receive Rs.80,000 and the latter category Rs.40,000 each. The government allocated Rs.22.71 crores for this scheme. This could cover about 13,000 children (taking the deposit amount to be Rs.17,550, which is the average of Rs.20,650 and Rs.14,450).

THE amount allocated for the scheme would cover hardly 1 per cent of the 7,70,492 girl children in the zero to four age group from poor households. It is estimated that every year 1,96,684 girl children are born in poor households (at a birth rate of 19 per 1,000 and considering that 35 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line). To cover the girl children at the existing level, at least Rs.1,348 crores is needed (at Rs.17,550 a child), and the addition every year would need Rs.344 crores. Thus, at least Rs.1,692 crores needs to be set aside in order to cover all poor female children in the zero to four age group in Tamil Nadu. But the amount allocated is only Rs.22.71 crores.

According to the Tamil Nadu government's website, the "Girl Child Protection Scheme" promotes family planning (as one of the parents has to undergo a sterilisation procedure, encourages the education of girl children (at the age of 20 the child can claim the money only if she has completed Standard X) and discourages male child preference. The government is pushing for the education of the girl child without putting in place the necessary infrastructure. Several government schools even in and around Chennai are desperately in need of a roof, rooms, teachers and black-boards. In many schools, up to five classes are conducted in one room, and in many others there is only one teacher to attend to all the classes.

Thus, although Tamil Nadu is one of the few States to have enacted the Compulsory Primary Education Act, the implementation of the law in the State leaves much to be desired.