World Day against Child Labour: India's shelter homes should do more to impart job-oriented skills to children

Her fingers remained trapped in the grill net cast over a window, her sight fixed on the empty compound outside where a clockwork of therapists, social workers, nurses and guards turned day to night and night to day. Till a few months ago, Mansha Ahuja (name changed) was an inmate at Sanskar Ashram in east Delhi, from where nine girls escaped into a cold December night.

The young inmates here comprise sufferers of abuse, those rescued from bonded labour and victims of trafficking. Incidents of girls being made to dance inside shelter homes in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district or chillies being stuffed into the private parts of minors in Delhi’s Dwarka area are better understood within the broader failures of the country’s child protection framework. Who assigns these girls to these homes and are operations at these shelters regularly, or even once in a while, inspected?

Ask her what life inside a shelter home is like and 15-year-old Mansha tells Firstpost there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. While she wasn’t abused inside one, she believes the risk of that happening is a real and an ever-present one. At shelter homes, she recounts, uncaring attempts were made at reading her mind in exchange for a roof and warm plates of food, and little effort was made to equip her with skills that could turn into a source of livelihood.

Mansha dropped out of school at the age of nine when older girls introduced her to sniffing chemical solutions, typically nail polish removers, cycle puncture sealant, and whitening fluid in just another one of Delhi’s urban villages where addiction runs awry. The juvenile remembers being raped by strangers behind parked buses and once by an old neighbour known to her family. Though out of addiction for over a year now, the horrors of those drugged highs still rust in her memories.

 World Day against Child Labour: Indias shelter homes should do more to impart job-oriented skills to children

Representational image. Reuters

The 2016 survey conducted jointly by the Women and Child Development Department and AIIMS estimated that Delhi’s streets are home to 70,000 addicts and their initiation into drugs happens at as early as age nine. Not all homes have toilets and addiction spreads like wild fire among adolescents whose habits rub off on each other.

She recalls that after her father’s death, her mother remarried and gave up on her. The girl remembers that she allowed her neighbour to touch her for the want of a five rupee coin. She tries not to remember that the thought of being able to sell her body lent her a sense of survival during those times. With shame, grief and rage, she keeps remembering the same four to five incidents that traumatised her. She often talks about a dance competition she travelled to Lucknow for as a child and the photographs of that event sometimes seem like her only asset.

In mid-2018, along with some other girls, she was moved to Sanskar Ashram from the after-care ward of Catalyst, a private shelter home in Dwarka, on the orders of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). She says eight out of the nine female inmates who ran away were from this group and were above 18. Some of them were with her in the private shelter and had been waiting for weeks for their release orders.

In that private home, the bunk beds were neater, there were facilities like a ‘silence room’ with boxing bags, jewellery-making classes and open spaces for inmates to move around in. Mansha doesn’t criticise the food or safety at Sanskar Ashram. But she questions why the only skill set imparted to girls in this building, which remains locked most of the time, is training to become a security guard. She spent her time at Sanskar Ashram, waiting for the cooks to make rajma chawal and for new episodes of Crime Patrol.

There are over 60 children at the ashram – the number changes every day – but only about half of them go to school. The shelter offers some craft classes that mostly fail to catch the attention of adolescent girls. Social worker Aisha Shamim, from the Haq Centre for Child Rights, revealed that Sanskar Ashram would keep requesting her to send Mansha back to the family.

“It takes a certain degree of patience and skill to deal with difficult children like her, who express their frustration from time to time. There’s a lack of innovation in keeping these children engaged, especially those from trafficking who suddenly feel claustrophobic behind locked doors,” explained Aisha, who is also a lawyer. She added that Mansha has an IQ of “7/10” and isn’t surprised that those older girls, most of whom were from Nepal, chose to run away.

Now, the broader question is this: why did the CWC pass an order admitting majors to a children’s home? The staff at Sanskar Ashram is tight-lipped about the incident, given that public fury is directed at the way they manage the home. The fact that it is a puppet in the hands of the CWC orders rarely comes under the spotlight. And CWCs are neither just a Delhi phenomenon nor just a Delhi problem.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) organised six regional conventions of CWCs during July to September 2014 across India and made recommendations to address implementation gaps. These included enhanced co-ordination between various institutions and stakeholders for effective monitoring, due implementation of child laws and restoration of children to their homes. Bharti Ali, founder of the Haq Centre for Child Rights, serves as a member of the state-level inspection committee that was constituted in January 2018.

She revealed that till date, there has been only one inspection of establishments that are in serious need of hand-holding. Out of the 10 CWCs in the national capital, Bharti confirmed that three are defunct. These are the ones in the Nirmal Chhaya complex in west Delhi and one at Lajpat Nagar in south Delhi. She said the members of the inspection committee haven’t been formally introduced and inspection protocols aren’t laid out.

Vinod Tikoo, a former member of the NCPCR, the apex body for child protection in India, explained that a CWC has statutory powers and its decisions can only be overruled by the high court. Section 31(1) of the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act empowers the body to be the final authority in disposing cases for the care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of the children as well as to provide for their basic needs and protection of human rights.

“Preparing Special Investigation Reports and giving monthly reports to the ministry should be monitored. There should one CWC in each of the 700-plus districts in India but that is not the case. There have been cases in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, where CWCs have been involved in selling babies,” he said, also mentioning stray cases of CWCs accepting fake documents in Punjab and Haryana. He cited the example of the recent Sanskar Ashram incident and stated that birth registration is non-existent in India and age is ascertained through school certificates but in case of migrants and orphans who didn’t attend schools, it’s harder for CWCs to collate documents within a certain time-frame.

The six regional conventions, based on findings in Guwahati, Imphal, Raipur, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Chennai, made the recommendation that CWCs should represent an interdisciplinary team of professionals to avoid political postings. Supplementing this point, Tikoo suggested that social work students should be sent to shelter homes to compile reports, which in his opinion will lay bare the realities of these places before the ministries who inhabit towers in central Delhi. Anant Asthana, a juvenile justice lawyer, pointed out that the State Child Protection Body, the apex body on child protection in the national capital, hasn’t had a meeting in the past three years and that bureaucrats are taking decisions that aren’t being scrutinised.

Tikoo feels the Skill India mission can be linked to shelter homes to enable children, both boys and girls, to hone and eventually monetise their talents. While that would seem like the logical corollary, it has remained an unfulfilled desire for Mansha, just one out of the country’s 44 crore children who doesn’t want to remember the childhood that destroyed her adulthood.

The NDA-led government, in its previous term, made amendments to The Apprentices Act 1961, bringing industries closer to India’s skill-seeking youth. Now, depending on the seasonality of operation or business or flexibility desired, a trade apprentice can complete his or her period of apprenticeship training within five years or double the duration, whichever is less, from the date of starting of the apprenticeship training. The clause of the ‘optional trade apprentice’ was inserted to factor in the trainee not undergoing apprenticeship training in a designated trade. Along with this, stringent clauses like imprisonment and the outsourcing of basic training to other industries were scrapped. This is a positive sign for a nation searching for skill.

The new Act has made it obligatory for employers to engage apprentices in designated trades to impart training on the job in industry to school dropouts, Industrial Training Institute (ITI) pass-outs, diploma holders and those holding certificates in 10+2 vocational streams. The ITIs were also revamped under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) with new norms for building, assets, facilities, training infrastructure and equipment. Why can’t these fundamental changes to the existing systems benefit the thousands of children skill-less and direction-less in India’s shelter homes? A re-orientation with skill training will enable children to be financially secure once they are out of home at the onset of adulthood.

Last year, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi had told Firstpost that while the new Juveline Justice Act was sufficient to address multiple aspects of the problem, the institutions dealing directly with the rights of the child need improvement and the budgetary allocation on children should increase. The central government allocated Rs 90,594 crore for children in Budget 2019. This was a meagre 0.01-percentage-point increase to 3.25 percent of the overall budget compared to the previous year. The NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) published a report on the budget which analysed that while the allocation for education fell 1.1 percentage point, the share for protection increased 0.6 percentage point from the previous year. If establishments are well-funded, the work culture and the morale of the staff will be positively affected.

In summation, there's a need for a shift in approach from rescue towards rehabilitation of children who have been victims of slavery, trafficking and abuse.

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 21:35:21 IST