How Civil Society Matters: Public Policy in context of Child Well-being in Meghalaya



By Bethamehi Joy Syiem

Child well-being refers to several key indicators – material well-being, health, safety, education, housing and environment of children. In Meghalaya, it comes under the mandate of the Social Welfare department. Existing programmes and policies of the department, however, have largely been uninventive in that as the nodal agency, the Department has mostly limited its role to that of the implementation and operation of Central schemes and programmes. 

Apart from a general criticism of the department's lack of initiative, one can view this phenomenon in the context of a new political economy. Social welfare and economic development have for long been the indisputable mandate of the Indian State. Yet, after 1991, India has seen a transformed view of the role of the state in a neo-liberal economy. 

Governance, as a network of relationships between the State, market, and civil society is being redefined from a State-centric planned model to one that is based on interaction and joint decision making for facilitating state-building activities. With the State seemingly allowing the dilution of its role in "governance" in favour of the private sector, we see that civil society has arisen to fill up the space of social welfare. The question for us now– what about child well-being in Meghalaya? Has civil society come to play an important role here as well?

The promotion of child well-being is of critical importance in Meghalaya especially in light of the status of children in the state. The infant and under-five mortality rate of the state is lower than the national average at 30 and 40 (per 1,000 live births) respectively as compared to the 41 and 50 nationally. However, this is not to say that Meghalaya is decidedly in a better state than the rest of the country. Only 61.5 % of children age 12-23 months are fully immunized. Furthermore, only 24.2% of breastfeeding children and a mere 19.8% of non-breastfeeding children received an adequate diet.

However, it may also be noted that the general nutritional status of children seems to be better in the state in comparison to the national statistics. Interestingly though, more than 43.8% of children in Meghalaya under 5 years of age are stunted (height-for-age). This is highly concerning. Nonetheless, the data does not necessarily point to an ideal situation for child well-being in the state. It is important to note that child well-being is a far-wider concern, beyond the traditional health indicators (though even these need more improvement)

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Education in Meghalaya is another indicator that seems to be at a pathetic state of affairs. Dropout rates are still high and the pass percentage at the SSLC examinations remains low. It is noted that except for urban schools, primary schools in Meghalaya are understaffed or run by unqualified and untrained teachers. Also, important to note is the lack of information and relevant research on the status of children and child well-being in Meghalaya.

Contemporary understandings of civil society both in academic and policy discussions have seen it as a "means to overcome the ills of democratic governments, especially in the developing societies and to achieve economic development". In essence, civil society, being 'non-governmental' constitutes a space in the society which allows a discourse on development and social change that is distinct from that of government programmes. It also allows for these ideas, forms of participation, and alternative practices to translate into "hard outcomes." 

Post-2000, with a noticeable change in the way Meghalaya, as a state, saw itself in the larger neo-liberal economy of India, there has also been a tremendous proliferation and growth of youth organizations, civic organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social groups and the like. This may be noted in the background of the rise of a professional middle class and a new urban market in Shillong, while rural Meghalaya still writhes in the pain of widespread inequality and the failure of the market to trickle down. The poor in Meghalaya still look to the State for relief and yet, new India seeks to promote market forces instead. It is here where civil society has had to step in.

NGOs in particular have taken up a major role in creating awareness as well as acting as agents of change in development and social empowerment, especially in terms of social empowerment for women and children. They also significantly contribute to the successful implementation of various developmental schemes and programmes aided by the government. In fact, financial aid to NGOs working towards social welfare as well as government-civil society partnerships have come to the fore even in the Social Welfare Department's strategy in recent years. Three NGOs can be taken as examples– Impulse NGO Network, CHILDLINE, and Reach Shillong Ministries.

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 Impulse NGO Network is of particular importance in the context of child labour in Meghalaya, especially in highlighting the predicament of child labourers just in the coal mines of Jaintia Hills. Sustained media campaigns backed by research created strong demands to address the issue of child labour in the coal mines, which eventually led to acknowledgment and change in attitudes. Similarly, CHILDLINE has played a significant role (with a toll-free number) in providing linkages among the allied systems and institutions for child protection and well-being (Police, Health care, Education, Social Welfare, Labour Department, child care NGOs, Print and Electronic Media, Dorbar Shnongs and Concerned Adults).

And finally, Reach Shillong Ministries, has grown to become one of Meghalaya's most active and effective voluntary organizations targeted towards the empowerment of two groups– children in need of care and protection; and Female Sex Workers (FSWs). With an Integrated Programme for Street Children, the organization runs 24-hour shelters; and provides food, clothing, shelter, non-formal education, recreation, counseling, and referral services for children. It is also a registered Specialized Adoption Agency (SAA) that facilitates the placement of orphans, abandoned, and surrendered children for adoption. Besides this, it has also partnered with the state government to run educational centres for never enrolled and school dropout children between the ages of 6 to 14 years.

These examples go to show that even in Meghalaya, children's rights and well-being has been actively safeguarded by the efforts and work of the civil society. They have had to take up the role in the face of the deplorable status of child well-being in the state. Concerning public policy, the state and the nation fall short in implementation. There is also an urgent need for the focus of debate and policy in India to shift in favor of approaches that include all children and recognize material, non-material and subjective forms of well-being.

(Bethamehi is currently pursuing her Master's in Public Policy at the National Law School of India. Her areas of interest include gender, social impact, traditional knowledge building and regulatory governance. She is also currently associated with the Dellimai Warnongbri Foundation as a Research Analyst.)

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