Activists from different social organizations hold a candlelight protest march against a Muzaffarpur shelter home rape case, in Patna, on August 5, 2018. Photo: The Times of India / K M Sharma
Activists from different social organizations hold a candlelight protest march against a Muzaffarpur shelter home rape case, in Patna, on August 5, 2018. Photo: The Times of India / K M Sharma

Twin cases of mass assault and exploitation of orphans and other young girls have rocked India.  Such cases and the subsequent outrage have the potential to dent the image of charitable organizations in India, where public perceptions of social work are not so encouraging.

“Senior Ma’am used to take the older girls out. Sometimes a white car, a red or a black car, would come. They would leave at 4pm and return in the morning with swollen eyes.”

That was what a 10-year-old girl told police last Sunday, narrating the ordeals of girls who had allegedly been forced to engage in sexual activities and house chores at a privately run shelter home in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh.

The chilling revelation by the child, who managed to escape the shelter, blew the lid off the alleged sexual exploitation of girls at the home.

Subsequently, 24 minors were rescued from the institution, which had been operating without a license for a year. More than 18 girls remain untraceable. A few have allegedly been given to foreigners for “adoption” illegally.

This came days after horror tales were revealed from another privately run shelter home that received grants from the government in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. A social audit by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai exposed the organized mass rape and exploitation of around 40 minor girls at the shelter.

Police are even investigating an allegation that a girl was beaten to death and buried there.

“Sexual and physical abuse of children, varying in forms and degrees of intensity, was found at nine institutions,” said Professor Tarique Mohammad, who was part of the audit team.

In light of the incidents, questions are being raised on how these non-profits managed to escape the mandatory inspections of two authorities, Child Welfare Committees and state Women and Child Development Departments.

This has managed to perplex even the Supreme Court. “People are paying taxes and you are giving people’s money to these institutions. It is not a private organization but funded by the government, and it means that the state financed these activities,” the court said.

No inspection, no accountability

States rope in non-profit institutions to address inadequacies in government-run shelters, but experts say very few privately run institutions comply with norms for care and protection of children prescribed under the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000.

“Many such institutions are floated by powerful people backed by politicians. Inspections are rare at these places due to lack of resources and political will. Sometimes, reports are cooked up to save the owners,” a government official said.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ audit has found that almost all of the 110 government-funded institutions in Bihar suffer deficiencies such as untrained staff, inadequate food and facilities, and lack of psychiatric treatment.

“Most institutions are located in small towns and lack trained staff and proper facilities. In one children’s shelter, adult inmates were found. There was no effort to train them so that they can make an independent living outside the home,” Professor Mohammad said, highlighting the mismanagement of institutional care in Bihar state.

When asked whether the audit was able to find that Bihar shelters were inspected by the Child Welfare Committees and the Women and Child Development Department regularly, Mohammad said,”That was not our mandate.”

The federal Women and Child Development Ministry has now ordered a social audit of more than 9,000 childcare institutions across the country in the next 60 days. Of the total of 9,462 such institutions, 7,109 are registered with the government.

Nexus of officials, cops, shoddy non-profits

Not a single government official in either the Deoria or the Muzaffarpur case was prosecuted until the incidents attracted media focus.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences report about the Muzaffarpur home was submitted in April and the State of Uttar Pradesh has been accused of inaction for two months.

The report is yet to be made public, which was also questioned by the Supreme Court.

Divesh Sharma, assistant director of child protection in Muzaffarpur, had filed the complaint on May 31 after the social audit. He is among the officers suspended by the Bihar government last week.

In late July, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) but by then the police had already arrested 10 of the 11 accused, including the owner of the shelter, Brajesh Thakur.

According to the report by the local police, “Thakur’s influence spanned the worlds of politics, bureaucracy, crime, police and media.” He ran several non-profit institutions, many of which existed only on paper.

Thakur has also been a member of the state’s media accreditation committee headed by a bureaucrat and ran three newspapers. Police claimed that his earnings came through newspaper advertisements, NGO fraud, and sex rackets.

A Bihar police official said, “Politicians, media and bureaucracy were all aware of Thakur’s suspicious background. He still spends time at a hospital despite being under arrest, courtesy of his clout.”

The social welfare minister of Bihar, Manju Verma, has resigned after the accusation that her husband frequently visited the shelter and “spent long hours” with the girls.

The minister said that he went to the shelter only once and was accompanied by her. “Let CBI probe the matter. If found guilty, my husband will be punished. I will get him hanged. I myself will resign and withdraw from politics,” she told Hindustan Times.

Similarly in Uttar Pradesh, the shelter was red-flagged by the CBI last year. The shelter lost its government accreditation after the bureau filed its report. Yet neither were the girls shifted to other shelters, nor was the institution shut by the authorities. In fact, the police continued to send custodial girls to this home until two weeks ago.

Uttar Pradesh Women and Child Development Minister Rita Bahuguna Joshi claimed, “Over 20 letters were sent to the district magistrate to take action against the shelter’s management, but they were all ignored. We lodged a First Information Report against the shelter’s owners but no action was taken. A court order in the favor of the shelter was cited for the inaction. However, no such court order existed.”

An official said, “The minister’s helplessness underlines the nexus of social workers and administration.” The district magistrate of Deoria was transferred and a child protection officer was suspended for inaction. A possible collusion of administration, police and shelter owners is being probed.

When asked about this alleged nexus, Chandra Prakash, additional director general of police (crime) of Uttar Pradesh, who heads the special investigation team probing the case, said, “It is too early to comment.” Bihar police too refused to comment, citing the fact that the case had been handed over to the CBI.

Inspections rare, accountability not fixed

Non-profit institutions continue to receive grants despite corrupt practices and cases of abuse and deaths. Ashram schools – residential schools that impart education up to the secondary level to children belonging to Scheduled Tribes – in Maharashtra are among such institutions, where about 790 kids have lost their lives over the past decade.

Poornima Upadhyay, who is associated with an outfit called Khoj, which works on behalf of tribals in Maharashtra, said: “These institutions cater to weaker sections which don’t usually raise their voice. Hence no action is taken against the officials accountable for safety of children in shelters under their jurisdiction. Investigators often weaken the case which saves the non-governmental organizations in the courts.”

Even local police overlook the complaints against these institutions because of corruption, workload and lack of gender sensitivity, Upadhyay said.

“Boys and girls both are subjected to physical and sexual abuse at many institutions across India, thanks to patronage and exchange of money,” said Pravin Patkar, co-founder of Prerna, which works for victims of human trafficking.

The Child Welfare Committees remain ineffective as most of their members are political appointees, he said.

Patkar suggests that there should be community-driven shelter homes for children. However, Maneka Gandhi, the federal minister for women and child development, suggests a single large central facility to house such children to prevent “abuse and misuse” by non-profits.

Non-profits’ image under threat

“Indians are misers compared to many other nationals. The poor image of non-profits is primarily responsible for this situation. Cases like Muzaffarpur and Deoria impact the sentiments of donors affecting fund collection of genuine institutions,” Patkar said.

India ranks 81st among 140 countries, a jump of 25 places compared with 2015, according to the World Giving Index 2017 . This rising trend of donation could see a reversal if more such cases come up, fears Ashima Chowdhary, an economist based in Bangalore.