Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi envisioned an India that is progressing every day in terms of achievements in space, transportation, aviation and so on. But there is another side to the story.
Barely a few days before we touched the 72nd year of being an independent country, we had the horrifying stories coming from shelter homes in Bihar. The Bihar government had asked a wing of the Tata Institute of Social sciences (TISS) – Koshish – to conduct a social audit of the shelter homes in the state.
The idea was to find out how the organisations can be strengthened to provide services more effectively and what role the state government has to play in achieving it.
What was meant to be a report identifying loopholes, suggesting solutions, actually became a horror story, reciting tales of inmates, the way they were terrorised, abused, physically and sexually.
Incidentally, one of the shelter homes belonged to the husband of the social welfare minister, who was actually responsible for ensuring that all the shelter homes work as per guidelines laid down under the juvenile justice Act and rules. Alas, her husband visited the shelter home regularly for inexplicable reasons. Out of the 44 girls in the Muzzafarpur shelter home, it was confirmed that 34 were raped or sexually assaulted.
The 100-page report submitted to the Bihar Government revealed that out of 110 shelter homes and 35 short-stay homes, there were 15 shelter homes, including the one in Muzzafarpur, where inmates were subjected to sexual abuse and physical assault.
One of the short stay homes had a woman, who was treated like a prisoner and was confined to a dingy room, where she was not even given a cot to sleep on. When the TISS team forcefully opened the door, the woman started weeping and narrated her appalling story.
There was no end as another shelter home had inmates all “painfully thin and sitting bundled up together in the hall”. They were suffering from lack of food and had been subjected to torture. Some of them had lost their mental balance. Others knew that they would soon join them but they had no option but to watch them turn into lunatics.
The girls were not the only victims. Boys, too, were subjected to unhealthy living conditions and physical assault. “They were forced to urinate in plastic bottles as they were not allowed to use toilets at night’, said one of the boys in another shelter home. “At times, there was no water to drink and they were forced to use water in the toilets,” said another.
While these homes were run by NGOs, the government-run shelter homes had no different story to tell. One of the boys staying in one such home remarked “ is jagah ka naam sudhar grih se badal kar bigaad jagah kar dena chahiye (this place should be called destruction home, instead of correction home).
In another short-stay home, run by an NGO, a girl committed suicide as she was not able to cope with the way the staff behaved with her.
Although the report was submitted to the Bihar government way back in March 2018, the government maintained silence and did not take any action. Not only this, the state social welfare department gave another project to the NGO running the Muzzafarpur shelter home on May 31, the same day an FIR was filed against it.
The project was cancelled only after 11 people, including Brajesh Thakur, husband of the social welfare minister, were arrested. The NGO got the project in a bulk order. It was revealed later on that officials in the social welfare department had submitted an “adverse” report in the year 2013. But Thakur managed to get permission for running the girls’ shelter home because of his political connections. Not only this, he got Rs. 1 crore a year for running five such homes for girls and women from the state government.
Not only this, a doctor, who runs a clinic in the nearby vicinity, visited the home for routine check-up, reported that inmates “were irritable and scared and they needed a family atmosphere”. This report was submitted in December 2016. Like other reports, the doctor’s report was also buried under Thakur’s clout.
Another warning came in November last year when a team from the Bihar child protection committee visited the home and reported that the girls started crying when they met them. It was informed that they had inadequate arrangements for pursuing studies or skill development but the authorities did not bother to understand the gravity of the situation.
Days after the Muzaffarpur shelter story, another shelter home at Deoria in Uttar Pradesh came under limelight. As was the case in Bihar, this shelter home was also run by an NGO. Incidentally, the government had withdrawn financial support and had also cancelled its recognition.
But the home was still operational with women staying in pathetic conditions, reporting similar horrifying tales, alleging flesh trade. Despite the government’s decision of de-recognition and to shut down the institution, the district police continued to send girls to the home and the supervisor continued to participate in official functions, enjoyed fame and played with the money given by the state government. The cases have been handed over to the CBI for investigation after public outcry.
In both the stories, the accused had political connections and were able to evade the law despite the fact that government officials had submitted adverse reports. It also means that when it comes to political high-ups, the culprits operate in the open, without fear.
The ministry of child and women department has defined clear rules for the operation of such shelter homes and operates through state-level departments, which delegate powers to district-level child welfare committees. The district-level child welfare committees control the admission of inmates to shelter homes after following a set procedure.
Not only this, these committees have to conduct monthly visits, ensure that the shelter homes are operating within the standard operating procedures, complying with law, providing food, shelter and clothing as per prescribed norms and also ensuring mental and physical well-being of the inmates. In fact, the committee members in the above cases, especially the Muzzafarpur one, actually perpetrated the crime and were amongst those who abused the girls.
The point that these stringent rules and regulations could not protect the inmates from being harassed mentally, physically and sexually, shows the inefficiency of the entire system. The fact that the law enforcers knew about the crime and chose to turn a blind eye shows the real intention behind fancy slogans like beti bachao, beti padao. These slogans are used only to garner votes. But in reality the government does not even feel the necessity of paying lip-service when the girls are abused.
Yes, the union minister for woman and child development has now ordered the national commission for protection of child rights to conduct a social audit of all 9000 childcare homes operating in the country within the next two months. A new performa has been designed, different from the usual check-list for running these shelter homes, in line with the recent Supreme Court ruling, in response to a Public interest litigation filed in 2007, following a similar incident of sexual abuse at a shelter home in Tamil Nadu.
Incidentally, half of these homes were found to be unregistered during a study conducted by the ministry in the year 2017. One can easily imagine the state of affairs in these unregistered shelter homes, if the registered homes had such horrifying and shocking tales to tell.
The government may have ordered the social audit of these institutions. The success or failure of such a tedious exercise can be gauged by the way audits are handled by various state agencies. Two months may not be adequate to conduct detailed audits as TISS had conducted. But for mandating effective change in the functioning of such institutions, the government must ensure an attitudinal change in those who run and supervise these homes.
What these women and children need is not sympathy but empathy and respect. The inmates should not be made to feel that they are at the mercy of these NGOs. They should know what to do and whom to approach in case of despair. After all, it is their fundamental right to live with dignity, get education and stay healthy and fit.
While Modi must be enthusiastic about the New India that he thinks is progressive, he must also ensure that his deputies have the same vision while fulfilling their responsibilities and duties. At this juncture, it seems to be a far cry. Sadly, it means that crime will go unreported and unnoticed till an organisation like TISS comes into the picture.
(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 20th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 34)