Countdown begins to disconnect 1098, India’s legendary child helpline

The Indian government is set to merge Childline with emergency rescue services; social workers concerned about continuity of child-friendly systems

Bengaluru, India: For over two decades, children in distress across India have dialled 1098 for assistance. The advertisement is instantly recognisable in public spaces, schools, and railway stations: the cartoon of a scrawny kid in nothing but shorts, holding an oversized phone to his ear, with the text “CHILDLINE–1098–Night and Day.” 

Soon, Indian kids will have to turn to the emergency services. Childline is all set to be merged with emergency rescue services by the government. The decision comes after a series of flip-flops. 

In September 2022, a report in The Hindu claimed that Childline was set to be integrated with emergency rescue services, under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. However, the government issued a release dismissing the claims made in the report. Half a year later, in June 2023, the government issued another release clarifying the “One Nation, One Helpline” scheme. The services of the successful helpline are indeed set to be integrated with the national emergency number 112. The release noted that the “transition of child helpline in progress; being made operational by taking over of Childline in 9 States/UTs in [a] phase-wise manner.” 

Shobha Fernandez, the administrator at the non-profit Sathi, which conducts outreach activities to rescue children from railway stations, said the “sudden decision” came as a surprise to those working on the ground. 

Since its nationwide rollout in the late 1990s, the toll-free helpline, synonymous with Childline India Foundation (CIF), the nonprofit operating it under the aegis of the Indian government has helped millions of children. Childline began in 1996 as a project at the academic institute Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Along with government support and partnerships with several nonprofits, CIF evolved to offer children rescue services as well as access to long-term care and rehabilitation across India. In 2020-2021, CIF and its partners answered over 5 million calls and provided emergency assistance to close to 395,000 children. 

While the latest press release details the new standard operating procedure, there is still uncertainty about how the government hopes to provide uninterrupted rescue and rehabilitation services for children in distress. So far, child protection and rescue services were made possible by a network of over 1,000 units and partner nonprofits in 568 districts, 135 railway stations, and 11 bus stands. Interviews with social workers revealed that the future of over 600 highly-trained and experienced staff members running Childline hangs in the balance. Moreover, there are concerns about the seamless delivery of services that ensure and protect the rights of the child. 

“We get a variety of cases,” said Nagamani CN, who has over a decade of experience working with Childline. She is the nodal coordinator for Childline at the Bengaluru-based Child Rights Trust, Apart from runaways, lost children, child marriage, child labour and child sexual abuse cases, many children call for emotional support, counselling, and guidance when in distress. Thus on the other end of the line, there may be a need for not just operators who can connect with the police, ambulance or fire services, but also counsellors. 

Operators trained in dealing with children in distress are a must, she said. 

Nagamani flagged two concerns: first, the merger of services will leave several social workers without a job, and the government will have to train cadres of staff to ensure the implementation of child-friendly systems. Secondly, maintaining confidentiality and handling cases with sensitivity at the heart of Childline’s operations. A merger with emergency services could mean that the first responders are the police, which may not be in the best interest of the child. 

While the guidelines mention protecting the rights of the child, what transpires on ground remains to be seen. Missing Perspectives has written to the Ministry of Women and Child Development for an interview but is yet to receive a response. 

Fernandez points out other difficulties in the handover. For instance, Sathi’s staff work with India’s railway police and other agencies to patrol police stations in major cities. Gaps in the handover mean hundreds of children may fall through the cracks. 

Fernandez explained that many children do not call the helpline. They arrive in the cities on trains from rural areas. Such children are identified through continuous, round-the-clock monitoring at major railway stations. Fernandez and her colleagues at Sathi spot children who are travelling alone, who look lost, or who may be in a distressed state. 

Often, children from north Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh travel thousands of miles to Bengaluru, Karnataka in south India, Fernandez said. They may be runaways, looking for work, or curious about life in cities. Several children are counselled and reunited with their families, many are referred to social services. 

Sathi and organisations facilitating Childline’s outreach at railway stations have requested the authorities to rope in the trained staff from the nonprofit sector, Fernandez said. At this point it is unclear if they will recruit from within existing teams or an entirely new cadre of workers, she added.  

As the countdown for 1098’s closure begins, Nagamani and Fernandez hope that the future systems are child-friendly at heart.