Editor's Note:A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Muzaffarpur: A year ago, the shocking stories emerging from Bihar’s shelter homes, particularly the horrors faced by shelter home inmates from Muzaffarpur, had rocked the nation. The sexual abuse of 34 out of 42 girls aged between 7 and 17 living at the shelter — later confirmed during a medical examination — came to light when the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) released the findings of its social audit of 110 shelter homes across Bihar, carried out on the behest of the state government. Members from the TISS team had been visiting these homes since August 2017 and had compiled horrific accounts of an organised sex racket being run from these homes.
Since the report was submitted in April last year, heads have been rolling in high places, albeit mostly in administrative circles. But politically, the case has managed to have some impact. Last year, the Bihar social welfare minister Manju Verma was forced to resign after it was alleged that her husband had close links with main accused Brajesh Thakur. Thakur was running another shelter home for women, right in the heart of the city’s red light district, from where 11 women and four children are thought to be missing.
As Muzaffarpur went to polls last week, these girls have been forgotten, and Thakur’s shelter home, the site of the various heinous crimes against them, has been brought down by the Muzaffarpur Municipal Corporation. None of the candidates cared to address the case even as news broke out just ahead of polling that 11 girls may have been murdered by Thakur and his accomplices and a "bundle of bones" has been recovered from a burial ground. Activists lament that local leaders have not mentioned the issue in their speeches during the election campaign. “It is very unfortunate for our society that protection of the girl child is not a serious issue during the election season. The political parties feel that basic issues like this won’t attract voters. Qualities like justice and equality are only present in their manifestos but not their value systems,” said Anil Prakash, a social activist.
Over 30 girls were allegedly raped at the Muzaffarpur shelter home run by an NGO. News18
On 31 May, an FIR was registered against 11 people, including Thakur, who was arrested in the first week of June. The CBI has been on the case since then, and has chargesheeted 21 people in connection with the case, while the Supreme Court has ordered the CBI to submit a status report on the probe by 3 June. Already, an alleged victim in the case has turned hostile before a Delhi court, after she failed to recognise two of the accused.
Activists raise questions on probe
Brajesh Thakur owned the shelter home run by non-governmental organisation Seva Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti. He allegedly used to assault the girls when they refused to have sexual intercourse with ‘guests’.
The report also mentioned Roshan, a child protection officer under suspension, who also allegedly assaulted the inmates. The CBI has also named Child Welfare Committee chairperson Dilip Kumar Verma and member Vikash Kumar. Social Welfare Department Assistant Director Rosy Rani, who was in charge of inspecting the shelters, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the incidents of alleged abuse. The CBI has also charged a doctor, identified as Pramila, for not reporting the matter and for allegedly giving abortion pills to the inmates.
Pankhuri Sinha, a poet, had organised several protests when the story came out in the media. She said, "We have seen huge support from the public. But I feel that the case is moving at a very slow pace."
Nivedita Shakeel, a journalist and social activist from Patna, who had filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking registration of an FIR and an independent investigation into the case, said, “When the story broke, a lot of political parties had come out in support of the girls, but nobody is speaking about it during the election campaign. It is a very shameful thing for the country that the CBI investigation is being carried out in such a substandard way during the tenure of a government which speaks of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the daughter, educate the daughter). When an initial examination was carried out in one of Patna’s government hospitals, three girls were found to be pregnant, but when they were taken to Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), it was found that they were not pregnant. How can there be a difference in the reports of two government-funded hospitals? Why wasn’t any investigation done on this?”
Shakeel added, “In their statements, the rescued girls spoke of a ‘tond-wale uncle' (paunchy man), ‘moonch-wale uncle’ (man with moustache). Where are these people and why wasn’t any investigation done regarding this?,” she added. During the police investigation, the victims identified Brajesh Thakur as ‘hunterwale uncle’ (man with a whip) but the chargesheet does not identify the other two people.
On 7 February, the Supreme Court ordered authorities to transfer the case from Bihar to a POCSO court in the Saket District Court complex in Delhi. In addition to the Supreme Court reprimanding the Bihar Police multiple times in the past for negligent investigation, the apex court had also issued contempt notice to then interim CBI chief M Nageswara Rao for transferring Joint Director AK Sharma, who had been handling the case.
Existing mechanism to tackle sexual abuse not adequate: Supreme Court
In October 2018, a bench of the Supreme Court had concluded that existing mechanisms to curb incidents of sexual abuse are not adequate.
Ashish Kumar, an advocate and a juvenile justice expert, said, “All childcare institutions are required to be registered under Section 41 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, and to follow Rule 21 and other allied provisions of the Juvenile Justice Model Rules, 2016. However, there is a large percentage of child care institutions which are not registered but functioning. The Act and subsequent Rules have laid down extensive provisions with regards to requisites to be registered as child care institutions and further follow-up mechanism has been set forth for regular checks. If we see the data, budget for child protection is to be classified under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme of the Government, and it is relatively a very small amount. The State has to invest in child protection to ensure that the POCSO Act and Rules get implemented. The fact is that less than 10 percent of the child care institutions are either run or sponsored by the State. The State has always been shying away from its responsibilities, and it is widely dependent upon other agencies. To ensure accountability for each and every institution, the government has to strictly adhere to the Act and Rules. This can happen only when a Child Protection Policy for each institution is prepared, supported/financed and duly implemented.”
Since the report, the Bihar government has increased the monitoring of shelter homes for children. It has implemented a four-layer monitoring system, which includes a district child protection unit chaired by the District Magistrate. Shelter homes are inspected on a monthly basis. There is also an additional director of the child protection unit, who visits these homes frequently. Further, the Secretary of the District Legal Services Authority inspects the homes regularly and the state-level Social Welfare Monitoring team oversees the operations.
Sayed Mansoor Qadri, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF (Bihar), feels that continuous capacity development of key stakeholders is a must. "Adequate checks and balances (through the Home Management Committee, Children's Committee, Inspection Committees and supervision mechanisms like CWC/JJB (Juvenile Justice Board) are in place, and they must be handled with due diligence."
File image of Bihar Police. Reuters
But despite the strict scrutiny, in November 2018, five girls escaped from a government-funded shelter home in Patna. They were survivors of the Muzaffarpur shelter home case and four of them were later found at Darbhanga. Suresh Kumar, a child rights activist says that as long as the CWC runs in an arbitrary manner, proper monitoring of shelter homes is not be possible. “All members of the CWC are government employees and due to the workload from their original posting they give little time to the CWC.” Additionally, unlike CWCs in other states, NGOs and civil society groups don’t have a seat on the table in Bihar.
Explaining the role of the CWC and other authorities, Kumar says, “Girls below 18 years of age, after being rescued, are first produced before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), which can pass an interim order for the child to stay in a home till the Social Investigation Report (SIR) is submitted. The SIR is done by the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU), and it contains details about the girl. The CWC then passes an order after reviewing the SIR.”
Transparency in the operations of these homes is needed, said Kumar. “Girls who are placed in a shelter home should be transferred to another home after a certain interval of time. This should be done to keep a check on any unscrupulous activity happening in shelter homes,” he suggested.
“NGOs operating shelter homes always complain about a fund crunch. Corruption is also rampant in these homes. Most of the shelter homes have very less space. Often, there are no playgrounds for recreation and exercise. These homes also don’t have any provisions to take care of children who are mentally challenged,” says Kumar.
Qadri says, “We should adopt an 'open-door policy' to engage with the civil society to support care, protection and well-being of children. Additionally, we should ensure that no child is detained in child care institutions (CCIs) unnecessarily. We should also promote de-institutionalisation through family-based alternative care like sponsorship and foster care. Apart from this, it is pivotal to ensure that the accountability framework is in place for each duty-bearer to act, respond and perform."
(The author is a Patna-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)