The current violence against children in India begets an introspective question. Is this a new phenomenon, or have such cruelties always been happening and we are just more aware of them now? Unfortunately, the latter is probably closer to the truth. It is, of course, convenient to label these instances as the ghastly handiwork of deranged perverts, call for drawing and quartering them to achieve closure and move on. But the primal anger such crimes evoke and the subsequent baying for blood—anybody’s blood—is hypocritical escapism from the reality that every member of society is accountable for the overall behaviour of that society.

For a moment, let’s step back from the sexual act of rape and consider how our society treats the helpless in general and children in particular.

It is a pathetic paradox that millions of children live on the streets of a country that has aspirations of achieving superpower status. Children, many of them infants, forage in garbage bins, use cardboard as shelter, eat putrid food, get stoned and beaten frequently. Children who manage to survive infant mortality; fatal diseases, accidents, abandonment and other life-threatening abuses live in packs under bridges, deserted buildings, pavements and railway stations. Children as young as 5 are put to work as ragpickers, beggars, foragers and prostitutes. They get no vaccination against basic diseases; no medical assistance whatsoever and have no one they can ask for help. Simple cuts fester into gangrene and fractures into painful and torturous deformities. In addition, they are beaten, hit by vehicles, raped, sodomized, separated from siblings, sold and at times killed. All of this happens literally a stone’s throw away from where we live. Even considering the ridiculous fraction of recorded versus actual statistics, as per the National Crime Records Bureau figures, more than 5,000 children are raped and over 1,000 killed each year. There are, of course, a plethora of laws to protect children, but they don’t seem to make a difference.

Child labour is our wretched euphemism for child slavery and our country holds the dubious distinction of having the highest number of child workers in the world. Children are employed in occupations ranging from back-breaking work as labourers and handling hazardous chemicals to manual scavenging and sexual gratification. Even the suppressed figure of 60 million child workers heralds the shame of our nation and apathy of its people. Again there is no dearth of laws banning child labour, manual scavenging or child trafficking for that matter.

Such examples of systemic abuse can go on, but the crux is that as a society, we are inured to exploitation of the helpless, poor and especially the voiceless. A sporadic outburst in the aftermath of one instance may act as a pressure release for the frustrated society, but it doesn’t make any meaningful difference. After the customary time span in air and print, the issue is pushed into the background by yet another round of scams and contemporary “breaking news".

The harsh reality is that most of us are fairly tolerant of exploitation per se. Or at least tolerant of a certain degree of it. But the problem is that like cancer, there is no mild version of exploitation. Once a society condones it for convenience, then mistreatment of the marginalized spirals out of control. As indeed it has. And while candlelight vigils and rocking the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan are some ways of expressing angst, it is also time to consider “direct action" at individual levels.

For instance, in 2010, Sonal, a young MBA working with an advertising firm, witnessed an eight-year-old girl being sent to a brothel by her own poverty-stricken mother in the slums of west Delhi. Within months, Sonal quit her job and started a tiny NGO with just a few thousand rupees. Three years later, her NGO Protsahan (Encouragement) helps over 150 young girls who are “at risk" by educating and training them for a livelihood. Protsahan has found fledgling benefactors, and surmounted the woes that besiege all noble intentions and even registered into the radar of the World Bank.

Sceptics will scoff—as they always do—at the minuscule difference that any NGO can make in the overall scheme of things, especially when there are millions of children who are at risk out there. But there are also thousands of Sonals and it is the responsibility of any self-respecting society to make it easier for the Sonals of the world to do what each one of us should be doing as well.

This is not just about supporting NGOs though. It is about understanding that meaningful changes don’t happen by a surge or demonstration of force alone. They happen by keeping that fervour alive day after day, month after month. Whether it is by imploring conventional media to keep sustained pressure, or by applying sustained pressure through social media. Whether it is by seeking out small causes and fighting for them one step at a time, or by actively supporting those who are fighting against systemic apathy.

The father of our nation once said that a country of 350 million people cannot be ruled by 100,000 Englishmen if they refused to cooperate. Sadly a nation of 1.2 billion people cannot be governed by a few hundreds of thousands from the establishment either—if they don’t want to be governed well. It is time we realized that nation-building is a contact sport and cannot be played from the sidelines.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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