Centre hanging up on 1098; children will have to call 112

Centre hanging up on 1098; children will have to call 112

The only dedicated helpline for children, Childline 1098, running successfully for the past 26 years as a partnership between civil society and the government, will be integrated with national emergency number 112, the Union government informed States and Union Territories.

“The Ministry has decided to integrate the Child Helpline (1098) with Emergency Response Support System (ERSS) with telephonic short code 112 and 112 India App and their linkage with District Child Protection Units (DCPUs) with the help of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC),” according to a letter of September 12 from Manoj Kumar Prabhat,​ Under Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development. 

The letter also asks States and Union Territories to identify a State-level nodal officer and second-level officers to support C-DAC as well as provide a building or space for setting up a Women and Child Development Control Room for takers of calls on the Child Helpline and Women Helpline. It follows the issuance of guidelines on Mission Vatsalaya by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in August, which too had mentioned integration of the two helplines.

In March 2021, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani told reporters during an interaction that Childline 1098 will be moved from the administrative control of the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD) to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The then Secretary, MoWCD, Ram Mohan Mishra had said the government wanted the State to be the “interface”, and “preserve data sensitivity”.

Possibility of drop in reporting of offences

However, civil society is up in arms because Childline 1098 has been a very effective and successful project, and is meant exclusively for children, unlike 112, which deals with emergencies related to police matters, health and women’s safety. They fear that with the police becoming first responders to calls from children, there might be a drop in the reporting of offences.

Set up in 1996 as a project at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Childine is run as a private trust called Childline India Foundation which is funded by the MWCD. Childline 1098 now receives 80 lakh calls annually and has a presence in nearly 700 districts in the country through over 1,000 intervention units, which include helpdesks at railways stations and bus stands. These units also typically have a phone operator, who are sometimes children rescued from the streets, a social worker, or a counsellor. 

Childline officials have also written to the Ministry to understand the nature of integration, but have so far been kept out of any dialogue, it is reliably learnt.

“Childline 1098 is not just an emergency helpline. It provides a range of services to children and, therefore, the transfer from MWCD to MHA is very odd. It is assumed that once police teams receive a call on 112, it will be transferred to 1098. But there is no clarity. However, police personnel should not be the first responders as they can’t provide the support and counselling children need. I can say that from my experience as the former Joint Commissioner of Police in Delhi, where I have handled police control rooms,” Amod Kanth, founder of NGO Prayas, said. His NGO runs seven 1098 centres in Delhi and provides emergency intervention on the ground after a call is made to the helpline. Prayas was also the first partner NGO for 1098. 

Law and order issues constitute only a small chunk of the total cases handled by Childline. According to Childline’s annual report for 2021-2022, of the 50 lakh calls received in the entire year, one of largest chunk of calls related to COVID-19, where parents enquired about vaccination for children, sought help to return home from big cities during lockdowns.

Diminished role for 1098?

Whether the government is looking at a diminished role for 1098 or planning to erase it altogether is not clear and some partner NGOs wonder what will happen to the government grant and to all the people who are part of the ecosystem. 

However, the recently notified Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Model Amendment Rules, 2022 omits all references to Childline. In the original Model Rules 2016, Childline services were identified as among the stakeholders who should be called when a child is missing, and whose contact details should be prominently displayed at police stations. Childline was also on the list of people who could make a complaint in case of offences against children. The principal Act, the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, however, mentions the role of Childline services and recognises it among the entities who can bring a child in need of care and protection before a Child Welfare Committee or to whom abandoned children can be reported mandatorily. It defines Childline services “as a twenty-four hours emergency outreach service for children in crisis which links them to emergency or long-term care and rehabilitation service”.

“I would recommend continuation of Childline 1098 as a collaboration between NGOs and the State,” says Meeran Borwankar, who interacted with Childline as Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Mumbai, and as Commissioner of Police, Pune, and retired as the Director General of the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

“It is not an either/or issue. Our objective is to reach out to children in distress or in conflict with law and being readily available to them. The problem of child exploitation and their trafficking is so acute that duplication of efforts is also welcome instead of non-availability of help. We should concentrate on disseminating information about assistance at hand instead of reducing it,” she said.

She explained that while most State police have “women and children desks” in police stations but overworked officers are not able to give adequate time to sensitive issues pertaining to women and children, and therefore a collaboration between NGOs and police was “very useful”.