Disconnecting 1098 Is A Bad Idea

Disconnecting 1098 Is A Bad Idea

1098—a number that gave hope to millions of children—will soon be out of service. According to the new plan, the 1098 (Child Helpline number) will be integrated with 112 (Emergency Response Support System) making police the first interface for the callers instead of social workers equipped and trained to handle a variety of sensitive and delicate cases related to children such as child labour, sexual abuse, violence, child trafficking, addiction, runaways, child health, child marriage, homelessness, conflict with law and child education.

The Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) has decided to shut down Childline India Foundation (CIF), the nodal body managing and monitoring the Childline 1098 service all over the country, and withdraw its support to NGO partners who provide emergency rehabilitation and repatriation services to children in need of care and protection and in conflict with law or in danger of any type. Till date over 3 million children across the country have dialled 1098 to receive help, care and protection.

Childline 1098, founded in 1996, became ‘a 24x7, 365 days a year, free emergency phone service providing help to children in need of aid and assistance’. This helpline number not only responded to emergency needs of children, it also linked them to relevant services for their long term care and rehabilitation.

Now this integration is not a good idea on a number of counts.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), this decision has been taken under Mission Vatsalya, (which subsumed the Integrated Child Protection Scheme) which has further accentuated their linkage with District Child Protection Units (DCPUs) with the help of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC). This, as several officers have asserted, is being done to ensure that state has “interfaces for children complaints” as well as for “data sensitivity”. But interfaces and data sensitivity aside, it is important to understand that the DCPU do not have sufficient devoted human resources like the existing Childline support centre has to handle calls and respond immediately.

Mission Vatsalya, in partnership with States and Districts will implement a 24x7 helpline service for children as defined under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 and amended in 2021. Though the MHA claims that the Child Helpline will now operate better due to the improved coordination of State and District functionaries, it seems unlikely that it will be able to honour the provisions of the JJ Act that keeps the welfare and well being of the child paramount and has all the procedures laid down in a child-friendly manner.

With police becoming the first port of call instead of social workers and child experts, there are worries about how the calls are going to be handled. At Childline 1098, there are several calls from children in mental distress and require immediate to long-term support and counselling; there are also others requesting for food, books, and even shelter. When deeply distressed children call, they take time to get comfortable and reassured before they open up, and this is why these calls need to be taken by experts who understand children and their psychology and are trained to protect and guide them. Police personnel are not trained to do the same. In fact, one official from the Child Welfare Committee at the district level asked “Will the police be ready to do it?”. The police are therefore not at all an appropriate first point of contact and will not be able to access services essential for rehabilitation and repatriation, needed utmost at that moment for children.

Whether the police can do it or not is for later, the more pressing question is are there enough police personnel to do this job? There is a huge human resources crunch. More than 33% posts are vacant in higher positions. Out of the 5.4 lakh vacancies at national level, 1.3 lakh vacancies are in Uttar Pradesh alone (Times of India, 8 July 2019 ). Adding to the pressure, new speciality departments—such as National Investigation Agency (NIA), Enforcement Directorate (ED), Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS), Special Task Force (STF), and Economic Offence Wing (EOW)—were carved out to address corruption, terrorism and other criminal activities; while police personnels here are deployed from the existing pool of human resources, reports have shown that here too there are huge gaps in sanctioned posts and the actual work forces.

Additionally, the JJ Act is very particular about how the first responders are with children. They have to be in civil dress (not in police uniform); it is going to be most inconvenient for the common police force to change their uniform for different purposes in the same day.

If the closure of Childline 1098, scheduled for 1 April 2023, is only aimed at saving some money for the exchequer (Rs 33.55 crore was the budget for 2021-22), it is a bad idea. This will put a huge burden on the already strained police force.

In Uttar Pradesh, Oxfam India and so many other civil society organisations have used Childline 1098 to indirectly intervene to reduce child labour. This move will derail the good work especially at a time when there are huge concerns around the rising cases of missing girls in the state.

The police are doing their work, but they are overburdened and short staffed. Keeping Childline 1098 and strengthening CSO partners, who are experts in child-friendly mechanisms, is essential to ensure children are safe and secure. Clearly, the number is working just fine and with great success. There is really no need to fix something that ain’t broke.

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