Kanpur Case Proves We Need to Do Better for Children in India's Shelter Homes

Setting up an independent social audit mechanism will be the first.

Earlier this week, at least five children at a shelter home in Kanpur – who were being tested for COVID-19 – were found to be pregnant. On June 22, the National Human Rights Commission issued notice to the chief secretary and director general of police, Uttar Pradesh.

As expected, the city administration has ruled out the possibility of any kind of abuse within the shelter home and claimed that the girls were pregnant at the time of admission. One hopes case for rape and other offences have been lodged by the concerned authorities. Since all these children are minors, any sexual act with them amounts to rape.

Whether the criminals who abused children are put on trial and children get justice or not, only time will tell. However, the incident has once again exposed the vulnerability of our children in institutions and the fragile child protection system we have in the country. Fears of the horrific Muzaffarpur shelter home case from 2018 repeating itself have suddenly resurfaced.

The Muzaffarpur case shook the country’s conscience; the case reached the Supreme Court as well as parliament. The Supreme Court bench made several compassionate observations, calling for overhauling the mechanisms protecting our children. Directions were passed for the Central government to bring a National Policy for the Protection of Children at the earliest. The Ministry of Women and Child Development expedited the inspection of children’s homes across the country. For once, it was felt that the worst was over.

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However, the truth is that nothing has changed since. Our institutions continue the way they used to. All cases of abuse and violence that have been reported since the Bihar case were revealed accidentally and not as a result of a systemic mechanism. How can we rely on these accidents or coincidences to bring out cases of violence?

There is a disturbing pattern in how we respond to such acts. Whenever there is a case like this, we are flooded with anger. Media, including social media sites, talk about it for some time but within days, we forget everything. Governments also forget that anything happened at all.

Today, if we are back to where we were with Muzaffarpur, we have only ourselves to blame. The apex court expressed its concerns over the plight of children and political parties condemned the abuse, so it was expected that the rehabilitation framework would be strengthened and the monitoring mechanism would be overhauled. It had been established beyond doubt that the existing mechanism might be good for administrative and financial checks, but failed completely in protecting children. The very basic, simple act of speaking to children is missing from our designs of institutional monitoring.

Following the Muzaffarpur case, this was expected to change. Unfortunately, it did not. One natural response, one thought, would be states conducting social audits across the country, just to find out if there were any incidents of abuse and if the children were doing okay. No state except Delhi conducted an independent social audit. In Delhi, the state women’s commission proactively moved to get a social audit done by Koshish-TISS, the same agency whose audit exposed the Muzaffarpur case.

However, the commission’s good intent failed to meet its goal as the state government is yet to implement or act on the finings of the report. Till today, Bihar is probably the only state that carried out a social audit by an independent agency and followed up on the findings.

There is an urgent need for an independent social audit authority. The number of lives we are talking of protecting runs into several lakhs. It is important to provide a safe and healthy childhood to these children. Social audits are critical to accountability framework.

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It’s possible that political vulnerability is preventing states from carrying out such an exercise. But then, can the future of our children be compromised for political reasons? Governments must rise above political calculations and set up independent social audit units within their states, or at least carry out regular social audits with independent agencies. Establishing an institution where people can be trained on conducting social audits would be the natural progression, once independent social audits are made part of the mechanism.

There are juvenile justice committees at the high court level, with judges as members. With such competent and direct supervision, monitoring and guidance available for the states, these committees could be an extremely effective mechanism for ensuring children’s safety. Unfortunately, even with these committees we have not been able to bridge the gap between children’s voices and the state system.

I remember in December 2018, Justice (now retired) Deepak Gupta talked about the need to become a voice for the voiceless. He was speaking at the annual conference of the Supreme Court Juvenile Justice Committee, with several judges from the Supreme Court and different high courts of the country in the audience. He emphasised on the significance of the methodology developed by Koshish, where speaking to children was central, and explained from his own past experiences how this simple mechanism can bring out incidents of abuses and violence. Unfortunately, we have not been able to build on his insights.

It is baffling that apathy and neglect continue at shelter homes despite repeated incidents. Could this be because of the profile of children who reach these institutions? A majority of them belong to excluded and vulnerable families; both financially and socially. Is it their parents’ inability to fight the injustice that determines the state’s behaviour?

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Another disturbing aspect of this whole cycle is the absence of ‘justice’. Whenever there are cases of sexual abuse or violence against children, the word we hear is rehabilitation. In the best of situations, the child would be provided with counselling support that may help her overcome the emotional trauma, and education or vocational training as an attempt to make her independent. But what about the crime that was committed on the child?

While auditing institutions, we came across several cases of abuse where children were counselled to plan for their future and forget the past. While planning for future is good, leaving out justice only shows how limited our understanding of what rehabilitation is. This approach also fails to recognise the trauma that this unresolved and unhealed assault may continue to cause for the child. We need to invest to have a dedicated system that can work on securing justice for all children who faced crimes. In the absence of dedicated support from the state, it is left on particular agencies/officials maintaining shelter home to pursue (or not pursue) the criminal case.

Muzaffarpur, Deoria, Pune, Delhi, Chandrapur and now Kanpur. The list is endless, and it is set to continue, unless we come out of our deep slumber. Setting up an independent social audit mechanism will be the first step towards fixing this problem. Let us do this now. It is the least we will do for our children. We, as a nation, owe it to them.

Mohd Tarique is an Ashoka Fellow, assistant professor and director of Koshish, TISS. He works extensively on the issues of homelessness, destitution and the rehabilitation of institutional populations.