We have a very short memory as far as tragedies are concerned. Breaking news lasts for a week…maximum, two weeks. The rampant sexual abuse and torture of 34 girls in a children’s home in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur recently created big waves in the national media due to the absolute shock and horror it caused among the public. But the anger and enthusiasm for justice of the public are bound to subside, until another event comes up. Hence, it is extremely important to act now. The Muzaffarpur case has already been followed by cases in Deoria and Bhopal, which reported the sexual abuse of more girls in institutional shelters.
The sinister reality in Muzaffarpur, in play for the last few years, completely invisible to the eyes of the authorities concerned and investigating agencies, is only one ghastly example of a malaise that has taken deep roots in our institutional systems. Had it not been for a chance social audit, the truth of this children’s home, run by an NGO called Seva Sankalp and Vikas Samiti, would never have come out.
The social audit done by ‘Koshish’ was a field action project conducted by TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai, on behalf of the government’s Social Welfare Department. It covered a total of 110 institutes spread across many districts, including old age homes, short stay homes for women, rehabilitation homes for destitutes, and child care INStitutions. The focus was on ‘lived experiences’ of the residents of these institutions in order to come up with ways of improving efficiency.
The Muzaffarpur home was flagged in the Koshish report, which asked the government to investigate. Subsequently, an FIR was lodged and the police swung into action. Soon after, 10 people, including the NGO’s head, a child welfare committee (CWC) member, a child protection officer and the superintendent of the home, were arrested. Medical reports confirmed that 34 children were raped. The girls at the home spoke of unfathomable brutalities. Even the social welfare minister had to resign after days of resistance to the opposition’s demands. Currently, the matter is being investigated by the CBI under Patna High Court’s monitoring.
Bihar has done what no other state would probably do easily; exposing itself to an external agency for an assessment. This was a very courageous decision. The follow-up action, based on recommendations of the report is another indicator of the department’s seriousness. Still, the government cannot be spared any responsibility for failing to check the organised abuse carried out with the support of state actors in Muzaffarpur.
The vulnerability exists almost everywhere. In the absence of functional mechanisms, every single child, in any institution in the country, is under risk. Is there any state that can convincingly say, ‘please come and visit us, audit us; we are clean’? It took an assessment by an outside agency to bring this case to light in Bihar. It is time that other states learn from this and have an honest assessment of their respective institutions before another case surfaces. We owe this to our children.
We can only hope that the tremendous courage that these children showed in speaking up about the abuse and in exposing their violators will enable them to rebuild their lives. The government must do whatever it takes to help the children reduce the trauma and get back to whatever normality they can regain. Also, the government needs to come clean on the charges by the opposition that it is trying to protect the accused.
The gravity of crime grows manifolds when the agencies of protection turn into abusers. The officials who were participants in this heinous crime have destroyed the trust of the public on institutions. It is on the state and judiciary now to act in a manner that would reinstate the much-needed faith and confidence in these agencies. If they fail to do that, it would be a shame.
(The author teaches at TISS Mumbai and is director, Koshish)