DNA Testing can protect children used for begging. But certainly not in the way that the Maharashtra government proposes. Dr. Pravin Patkar responds to the recurring issue of policy proposed by the Govt of Maharashtra. (http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-maharashtra-government-planning-to-test-dna-of-beggar-children-2058534)
The DNA Proposal
The Government of Maharashtra proposes to carry out DNA tests on the children used for begging and on persons in whose custody these children are found. It claims that the procedure would conclusively reveal if the latter are the biological parents of the child or not. If they are found to be unrelated, the government proposes to trace the parents through an online DNA database and thus, reunite the children with their families. This is not for the first time the govt has announced its intention to bring about such a policy. The proposed policy option needs to be properly understood as it is being announced repeatedly and may be taken up for formal approval.
Barring a few people who have raised their eyebrows over the idea that someone’s DNA report will be collected and stored by the government in its data bank apparently there is not much objection to the idea of DNA testing per se. Considering the seriousness and rising number of the cases of ‘missing and found but untraced’ children mostly belonging to certain weaker and vulnerable sections of the society as well as the technological superiority and indispensability of DNA matching the vague objection to creating a DNA data bank might not get much attention. Nonetheless it may be stressed at the outset that DNA data being sensitive must be handled carefully and responsibly.
At face value the idea looks noble and appealing. On closer inspection it will be clear that it is vague and full of defects and gaps. What must be appreciated is the announcement of the State’s desire to do something about the issue of children used for begging. Although in its current form, it is naïve, poorly conceptualized, and based on incorrect presumptions.
The Presumptions in the State’s Design:
The policy option is based on many presumptions such as;
i. Most children used at the signal posts for begging are trafficked.
ii. The person (often a young woman) taking the child around for begging is a trafficker/ kidnapper.
iii. If she is a mother then she is not a trafficker.
iv. Most of them are Indian children and adults.
v. There is a complaint somewhere in the country about the child going missing.
vi. The real parents must have approached the local police station to file a complaint.
vii. The local police station must have filed an FIR as per the Orders of the Supreme Court.
viii. The local police station would have carried out the DNA test of the complainant parents and uploaded the report on the website.
ix. The website has the technical capability to undertake data matching in all the states of India and South Asia.
x. The complainant parents are eager to get the child back.
xi. It is alright to hand over the child back to the parents from whose custody the child might have already been trafficked in the past.
xii. The parents have not knowingly sold the child.
xiii. On receiving the child back the parents will not sell the child again (and again and again).
xiv. The child (especially a little grown up) is keen to go back to and stay with its parents and in the first place has not run away from the parents not being able to tolerate starvation, deprivation and physical violence.
Any social worker experienced in the issues of anti human trafficking, child protection, violence against children, and missing children in South Asia will vouch that all of these presumptions are grossly wrong and baseless. The otherwise is more likely to be true.
The Questions That are Unanswered By The Proposal:
The proposal raises some unanswered questions such as;
i) What if the DNA of the child and its custodian match? Will the state stop at that presuming that biological parents have a right to use their children for begging and the State is not mandated to protect those children from their own parents?
ii) Is it required to first prove that the child does not belong to the person who is the custodian of the child in order to protect that child from being used in begging?
iii) What if the woman displaying and exposing the child at the signal posts is herself a victim of human trafficking and is operating under criminal force?
iv) Do all (or most) States in India and South Asia have a system of keeping biometric and DNA reports of the complainants?
v) If they do is there a system of data sharing among the Indian states and the South Asian countries,
vi) Are the States in India and South Asia eager to get their children back to their states? One again, any social worker experienced in the fields of anti human trafficking, child protection, violence against children, and missing children in India will answer these questions in the negative.
The Information Gaps
The proposal also points at an information gap at the Government of Maharashtra level. As a research consultant to Plan International on this issue and as a part of the regional exercise where State, Civil Society Organizations, International Organizations and SAARC are working together to connect the data systems of Nepal (Childline), Bangladesh (DNet) and India (TrackChild) to address the regional issue of missing children, I strongly feel that the above proposal implies that the government is not aware of what is being promoted at the South Asian regional level by the governments and SAARC.
If these children are abandoned children, which is a fact in a high number of cases then there is no way the parents would approach a police station to file a missing complaint. If the family does not complain, there is no alternative way to identify a missing child.
The gap between missing children and filing of complaints is phenomenal. After the two 17th January 2013 and 10th May 2013 (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 75 of 2012 BBA Vs Union of India & Ors) Orders of Supreme Court on missing children, police stations are under pressure to register an FIR in every case of a missing complaint and start the investigation presuming a trafficking or kidnapping angle.
As is, the police stations in South Asia are notorious for refusing to register an FIR in most crimes. There is little hope to believe that it will be registered in the case of missing person complaints.
Reunion: Not Always the Answer
Although the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child 1989 and the Juvenile Justice Act of India give prime importance to the restoration of a child in his/her family as a matter of right it is a lofty ultimate goal. It is also based upon an axiom that a family is a heaven for its members. A family is not a static phenomenon. It is undergoing constant transformation.
The families from where these children go ‘missing’ and join the rank of ‘Found but Untraced” children living in the metropolises without any responsible adult protection and supervision are themselves the victims of displacement, uprootment, impoverishment, collective violence, economic depression, and such other ever increasing factors. Many of these families are not in a position to provide for the basic survival of the child. In some cases they look the other way when the child is being trafficked. At times they sell their own children.
Therefore restoring a child to the family is not often a wise decision. The state and civil societies should be guided by the principle of the best interest of the child. Fortunately both, the UNCRC as well as the JJ Act, acknowledge and recommend that.
Many children get physically separated from their families as a result of an accumulated unfavourable situation primarily resulting from maltreatment, deprivation, forced migration, and consequent disintegration of the family. Such situations also fuel domestic violence against children and an episode of gross verbal or physical violence precipitates their running away from their families to unknown destinations. There is little desire in these children to go back. The families, often, are not in a position to provide for their basic necessities let alone for their developmental needs. In majority of the cases, reunion with the family is not the solution to the problem.
Even in cases where the children are actively trafficked it is seen that the family is incapable of providing minimum protection and support to the child thereby rendering the child vulnerable to getting trafficked. If the family continues to be ill-equipped to provide the required protection the chances of the reunited child getting re-trafficked are almost 100%.