Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in his press meet on 10 July 2020 informed that from 25 March 2020 onwards,i.e. ever since the lockdown to contain COVID-19 came into effect in the state, 66 children had died by suicide.
He also shared the various (possible) reasons for this high incidence of death of children by suicide, including domestic issues such as different compulsions by parents, discord among parents, alcoholism of father, the uncertainty of future preventing parents from spending time with the children and the subsequent feeling of isolation, apart from issues arising out of closure of schools and being unable to meet and talk with their friends; he also shared the details of the different initiatives by the state to tackle the issue including the launch of its project ‘Chiri’ wherein student police cadets were being trained to provide counseling to children.
Although the existence of an aspect called mental health, let alone its importance in overall well-being, fails to find acknowledgment amongst the masses of this country; at the outset of it, Kerala Government under the leadership of Vijayan may be lauded for its great concern for its people, particularly the mental health of children. And yet, in delving deeper, one cannot but wonder if all of it is only a façade if not micro-violence under the pretense of benevolence.
The problem with the Vijayan government’s positioning in this regard is simple and straight.
Firstly, it operates under a gross generalization of the issues of children and ignores differences based on gender, caste, class, and disability. In highlighting the possible motivating factors of the children’s death by suicide, Vijayan reduces these factors to seemingly “petty” aspects, say, a scolding or two from their parents. In such a reductionistic move, he fails to wear the lens of intersectionality and thereby fails to acknowledge how the pandemic and subsequent lockdown has affected each child differently based, on their social location and aspects including disability.
Secondly, in ‘guiding’ parents on how to ‘behave and speak’ in a better manner with their children, the Vijayan government has conveniently passed the buck on parents while washing hands off the state’s responsibility.
One of the key reminders of these two aspects is the death of 14-year-old Devika Balakrishnan from Malappuram. Balakrishnan, described as a bright student, was the daughter of a Dalit daily-wage worker who died by suicide when unable to join classes online due to a faulty television set and the lack of a smartphone with internet. Many student activists had taken to the street to protest her death while the CM ‘expressed grief’ and initiated an enquiry. The move to begin classes online came after various child rights and other experts warning the Kerala Government to not resume classes online as it would create a huge rift between those children who have access to required resources and those who do not. While in ignoring the warning, the Kerala government cost Devika her life; despite complaints being lodged at the Kerala State Human Rights Commission in this regard, there has been no action taken so far.
When Vijayan lectures parents on tactics to prevent suicide, including the use of a softer tone with their children, pressure is put on parents to prevent mental health issues in children despite structural inequality imposed by the state; and the state sneaks away the prize for being the most concerned stakeholder.
Lastly, in constituting a committee to be headed by Director General of Fire and Rescue Services, Smt. R Sreelekha, to look into the matter of these 66 children’s death and in training students, police cadets to provide counseling services to children under the project ‘Chiri’, the Vijayan government has displayed an extremely laidback and uninformed understanding of mental health issue and services. The fact that counseling, in as grave situations as that of a probable incident of suicide, would be provided by trained ‘student police cadets’ and not certified psychologists or psychiatrists, reflects how make-shift the solution is. It doesn’t occur to them how badly this move could backfire and jeopardize so many lives. Moreover, there has been no mention of a social worker or a child psychologist in looking into the deaths is once again a cause of concern.
And yet in throwing breadcrumbs and making piecemeal offerings, the left government is stifling children’s cries for help and need for support, throttling their fundamental rights including those to equality and education.
Diana Thomas is working as a research consultant and has a master’s degree in Social Work (Children and Families) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.