Assam is popularly known as the Gateway to the North East. It is one of the ‘Seven Sisters’ states along with Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, and shares international borders with Bangladesh and Bhutan. It is India’s 14th most populous state, with 35.5 million people living in 33 districts.
Implementation of equitable development in Assam faces additional complexities, including its geography, frequent natural disasters, longstanding civil strife, large rural populations (with 81 per cent of the state living in rural areas), varying institutional governance arrangements (six districts are administered by autonomous councils).
While key child development indicators such as sex ratio, infant and under-5 mortality rates, immunization and school enrolment rates have improved, issues relating to overall child survival and violence against children continue to be of major concern. This is compounded by the state government's rapidly decreasing budgetary allocation for children. In 2007 close to 16.19 per cent of the Assam budget was allocated for children but this has been falling ever since with the share in 2016 being only 6.01 per cent.
Protection of children from physical, emotional and sexual abuse continues to be a serious challenge in Assam with exploitative practices such as child marriage, child labour and child trafficking still rampant. There have been increasing incidents of crimes against children and immediate attention must be given to children who are vulnerable to abuse.
Interventions aimed at increased reporting of abuse and the creation of safe spaces for children with well-trained service providers will go a long way in improving the situation for every girl and every boy.
Despite a substantial decrease in infant and maternal mortality rates, Assam is still the largest contributor of both in India. Children in rural areas are 2.4 times more likely to die before the age of 5 years than urban children. In urban areas the under-5 mortality rate is 27 while in rural areas it averages 65 and goes up to 80 in certain districts. The situation for expectant mothers is not much better, with the maternal mortality rate more than 100 points greater than the national average. Adolescent pregnancies (13.6 per cent), child marriage (32.6 per cent), deficient family planning and low access to antenatal care exacerbate the situation.
A serious setback in the ability to achieve healthy lives for all children in Assam is low immunization coverage. The increase in immunization coverage has been just two per cent. Evidence indicates high drop out rates also, indicating that there are substantial challenges beyond just coverage.
More than one third of children are stunted - 36.4 per cent. The gravity of the situation is further highlighted by an over 40 per cent increase in stunting in urban and upper wealth quintile children.
Education, specifically at the elementary and primary levels, has witnessed considerable progress with retention rates for lower and upper primary school children increasing. Nearly 67,000 elementary schools have been set up in Assam. Approximately 90,000 children with different abilities have been mainstreamed into schools, while home-based education has been provided to approximately 10,000 children by experts and resource persons. Despite this progress there are still over 100,000 children are still out of school in Assam. Adding to this are issues of low attendance, high dropout rates, a high number of teacher vacancies and decreasing budgetary allocations. This has caused a stagnation in the quality and spread of education.
The future of Assam’s children is inextricably tied to the importance given to them in the policies and decisions made by stakeholders. While the government must adopt effective and sustainable measures ranging from strategic budgetary allocations to increasing the capacity of service providers at all levels, the role to be played by communities, parents and children themselves cannot be understated. The demand for quality development services must be made and accountability demanded, if the children of Assam are to live wholesome and productive lives.
With over 41 per cent of the population under the age of 18 years, the state government and its partners have made strides in the right direction by increasing access and improving the quality of services for children and women. In 2016, the Assam government launched a strategic vision document “Assam 2030 – Our Dream, Our Commitment as a roadmap to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with child development a vital aspect of this vision. The State’s efficacy has been displayed in the large infrastructural developments it has undertaken, though this has happened at the cost of quality and sustainability.