What could pop up on the pages of a Delhi Noir collection—stories of random acts of sadism—is written nightly in the streets and dark rooms tucked away in the megacity’s innards. Shaan, now 17 and relatively insulated from the pain, can reel out a few mini-classics from memory. He was still in his early teens when he ran away from the abuse of his stepfather. After long days spent collecting bottles, cans and other scrap, he would head to the night shelters, like the one near Kashmere Gate. Some men in the shelter abused drugs in the dormitory itself. One night, they tried to force him to try some smack. He refused, like he had many times before. This time, it was a costly refusal. They took turns sodomising him.
A government hospital gave him some medication for a week. “My stomach hurt for a long time,” he recalls, speaking to Outlook at a day-care facility run by Chetana, an NGO that works with homeless and other children at risk—a category that includes orphans, lost or abandoned children, children whose parents are unable to fund or monitor them, and those who are rescued from child labour, trafficking or begging rackets. The very sort for whom shelters are meant—places of refuge that can turn into their bestial negative.
Shaan had gone back to sleeping in the streets after the sexual assault—an extreme form of abuse among the large menu card of options on offer in India’s shelter homes. The trauma made routine there flows under the radar of society until some exposé brings it to light, such as recent revelations of abuse in a children’s care home in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur and another in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, a protective legal umbrella is supposed to ensure none of this happens—the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act is not just for the rehabilitation of juvenile castouts, it’s meant to ensure a rigorous monitoring system for children at risk, starting from below the district level. But the exposés reveal a huge gap between intent and execution.
In the nightmarish story from Muzaffarpur, for instance, a chairman and a member of the district child welfare committee (CWC) are among the 11 accused of sexually assaulting the very children they were appointed to protect. Bihar’s social welfare minister, Manju Verma, had to resign on August 8 after it came to light that her husband was close to Brajesh Thakur, who headed the Sewa Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti, the NGO that ran a string of shelters, including the Muzaffarpur one. The state government was funding the NGO, set up by Thakur’s father in the 1980s, and Verma’s husband had allegedly visited the Muzaffarpur shelter several times.
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There’s some special perversity in how the whole weight of human abuse seems to fall on the already fragile—shelter homes, therefore, have this aura of dread around them. At the same time, in a society brimming with castouts, the need for them to exist is self-evident. Bringing all of them to a safe, transparent place will need, first of all, a regulatory system. As of now, too many of them function unmonitored. It’s difficult to get an exact count of the total number of shelters in India catering to different groups—the aged, the differently-abled, the homeless, women, beggars, children at risk, substance abusers seeking rehabilitation, et al. After amendments to the JJ Act, a survey by the Union women and child development ministry in 2016 found over 9,000 shelters for children alone across India, though the number of registered ones was only 2,000.
(Left) Brajesh Thakur; the infamous shelter home at Deoria, UP
Which is not to say all those outside the system are dens of crime. Muzaffarpur, for one, unfolded blithely within the system. That horror came to light when Bihar’s social welfare department asked Koshish, a Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) initiative on homeless and destitution, to do a social audit of all 110 government-run or -funded shelters of all categories. The audit report, submitted in April 2018, claimed almost all 110 were being run in violation of norms, and at least two had seen instances of sexual and other forms of abuse. A Muzaffarpur-based journalist started reporting on the issue; eventually an FIR was lodged in May 2018. The Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance, and a CBI inquiry was also launched.
Assistant professor Mohammad Tarique and others in the TISS team did not find it easy to get the child inmates to speak up. But their testimonies to Koshish and, later, the police probe revealed the full extent of the horror: girls at the shelter, all in the 6-17 age group, including some with speech impairment, were routinely subjected to sexual assault after being fed sedative-laced food.
India had barely digested all this darkness when another horrifying story emerged from eastern UP. A 12-year-old girl, who had run away from a shelter in Deoria town, complained to the police about physical abuse at the shelter. Older girls, aged 15 and above, would leave in cars in the evening and return crying in the morning, she said. The police rescued 24 girls and found 18 missing. One Girija Tripathi and her husband, who were running the shelter, were arrested.
But there was more. The Deoria shelter was among several in UP whose finances the CBI had looked into in an earlier probe—it had been deregistered and ‘shut down’ in June 2017. But only on paper, as it turned out. Even in June 2018, the police handed over a homeless girl to that shelter. Inmates of a disbanded shelter are supposed to be shifted immediately—to other shelters in the district or, if none is available, then in other districts. But the illegality continued for a year. The district CWC chairman now claims girls were being sent to the Deoria shelter despite his objections. This case too has been handed over to the CBI.
The routineness of it all is quite sickening. A few months ago, a CBI court in Haryana convicted Jaswanti Devi and others in a case that was reported in 2012. The children in Apna Ghar were raped by several men, including Jaswanti’s son-in-law. In some cases, the girls were forced to undergo abortions—though at least two babies were born and then sold off.
Down south, the Observation Home for Boys in Bangalore’s Madiwala is almost known for the phenomenon of inmates running away. What other descriptor is needed for a house of horror, you may ask. Even if things are not always that lurid, some facts create living conditions that children simply want to leave behind. An observation home (OH), run by the state department of women and child development, is meant to keep juveniles ‘in conflict with the law’ until their case under the JJ Act is disposed of—those convicted are admitted to a ‘special home’. At the very least, the rehabilitatory mechanisms are grossly inadequate.
The Madiwala home can accommodate 100 boys, but there are usually about half that number there at any given time. They reckon around 28 boys have attempted to escape in recent months. An official lets on that six of the 13 boys who broke out on July 31 had escaped several times earlier and been brought back, sometimes after being booked for a fresh offence while on the run. Recently, the number of guards was increased to eight, five more than the sanctioned three. On July 31, the boys had beaten up a guard before escaping. Once, the boys had got out after cutting open the grill of a toilet window.
This pattern shows up elsewhere too: this unutterable need to escape. Ten inmates of the David Sasson Industrial School in Matunga, Mumbai, also a shelter for children ‘in conflict with the law’ and ‘children in need of care and protection’, had used the same method to escape on August 14, 2016. “Break-outs are only symptoms. Why are they trying to escape? What are they running away from? That’s what we need to ask ourselves,” says counselling psychologist Kalpana Purushothaman, a member of the Juvenile Justice Board in Bangalore, which hears cases under the JJ Act.
At the very least, she says, there’s an acute shortage of mental health services, including counselling for children in institutional care and their families. Local communities too need to get involved in changing the lives of these children, she says. Otherwise, it’s like a vacuum. “Hiring people on contract through agencies doesn’t serve the purpose of social re-integration,” she says.
There are rules governing the operations of private shelters. They have to be registered bodies with a proper charter, must disclose their funding and apply to be recognised by the district CWC, which is supposed to inspect the premises and go through its books before sending children there. Following Muzaffarpur, the Bihar government said it would take direct charge of all centres in the state. Last year, a Supreme Court-appointed committee had suggested social audits.
Now the Union ministry for women and child development too has asked for a social audit of child care institutions as well as shelters for women across categories, such as working women’s hostels, homes for destitutes (including widows), and for rescued sex workers. “One purpose is to understand whether the women and children living in these homes feel safe and whether they are getting the education or skill-training they are supposed to get,” says a ministry spokesperson.
The audit, supposed to be completed by September 15, 2018, would be the first on such a scale, though some agencies make specific inspections upon complaints. In 2013, for example, when a child wrote to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, it made a spot inspection of three shelters in Haryana’s Ambala district. The NCPCR is a statutory body under the ministry, and one assumes a benefactor’s help in bringing on that formal letter.
Its team found that, at the privately-run Mercy Home, three or four children had to share a cot; many slept on the floor. The children also attended to household chores, against the rules. The NCPCR shut down Mercy Home and shifted its inmates to other shelters in the state. Mercy Home is up and running once again, its director told Outlook.
At a government-run shelter in Rewari, Haryana, Outlook met a boy who had briefly lived at Mercy Home. Corporal punishment was frequently used there, he reveals, while it’s used only for extreme indiscipline in the Rewari shelter. One wing here is occupied by senior citizens—their shelter is being renovated. So flow of money doesn’t seem to be a problem in semi-urban Haryana. Strangely, it is in the heart of Mumbai. Ravindra Pawar, deputy superintendent of the Matunga shelter who doubles up as an art teacher, says they haven’t received any government grants for the last three years. “There’s often a shortage of foodgrains. Sometimes we have to provide meals without salt.”
Back in Rewari, the only official is an advisor. A girl’s home in Jhajjar district seems to be sprouting officials, by contrast. But inmates? We can take up to 50, says a woman official. That seems boastful, judging from the space. The records say there are around 23 girls, less than half the beds. “They share the beds. It’s like at a wedding. We always adjust, don’t we?” she says. A superintendent hushes her.
Another dubious flank. Each of these shelters has a ‘special adoption agency’—usually a room for children below six, who are registered for adoption. At the Rewari home, a staff points to a child sitting alone in that room: HIV infected. Last year, they shut down Ujjwal Niketan in Gurgaon after finding children were admitted without proper records, then given up for illegal adoption. “Inmates told an SIT they were physically abused. Sister Lily Baretto was arrested for trafficking,” says Bal Kishen Goel of the Haryana State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
In July, three girls at an SOS Children’s Village in Guwahati, Assam, opened up during a workshop conducted by a local club. They said the assistant director, Loon Vaiphei, had touched them inappropriately. “Children often do not know it’s a sexual offence,” says Miguel Das Queah, the activist who lodged an FIR, leading to Vaiphei’s arrest under POCSO.
Up north, again in July, 48 girls were found crammed into one room at an orphanage in Chanpora, Srinagar! The shocking fact came to light when an oversight committee for the JJ Act visited the home, run by the Borderless World Foundation, a registered “not-for-profit” based in Pune that runs five orphanages across Kashmir. “It was awful,” says Justice (retd) Hasnain Masoodi, who led the team. The warden and other staff were absent. Saleema Bhat, accountant-cum-warden, conceded to the fact and told Outlook: “They were being punished for wearing short dresses, which we don’t allow,” she says. All the girls study in nearby private schools; the foundation foots the bills.
Horror runs in such spate that older stories get blurred. In Gurgaon, the NCPCR once found a centre where the caretaker had raped his wards and infected them with HIV. Boys in a Delhi observation home bartered their toiletries with the guards for drugs and boys at another in Bengal paid the guard Rs 20 per head to let them watch pornography. Says Vinod Kumar Tikoo, who discovered these cases when he was an NCPCR member in 2010-13: “The district authorities, the police and the CWC must work in tandem.” Or, oversee each other—to lessen the scope for bribes.
When the system fails, those who suffer the most are the very ones intended to be its beneficiaries—like Shaan. His life is a perfectly concise script of horror—his own and that of thousands like him. He has seen boys leap back and forth, in a miasmic waltz, between twin realms of nightmare. The street and the shelter home. He has slept on the pavement and seen homeless women being sexually abused in the streets.
Shaan was tricked into a shelter home in Dwarka where plain sadism seemed to be the only rule. “They beat us frequently and made us stand on chairs. They woke us up at the crack of dawn and sometimes didn’t let us sleep at night. In winter, they made us bathe in cold water even though there was a geyser. The boys had to clean the place and run chores,” Shaan recalls. After a nine-month ordeal, the winding path of life took him back to his mother. A month or so later, fed up with his stepfather’s cruelty, he was back in the streets.
This time, he took care to stay away from institutions. He would sleep on the street, his possessions only what he could carry or wear. Had it not been for Delhi’s biting winter and the frequent muggings, he wouldn’t have landed up in that Kashmere Gate night shelter, nor faced the most traumatic event of his life.
Chetana, the NGO, put Shaan in touch with his mother. Now, he shares his meagre income with her whenever he visits home, but prefers the streets. He has also learnt to cook street-food—“momos and chowmein,” he says. He’s cautious about night shelters and any closed spaces he’s unfamiliar with. “The new night shelter in Nizamuddin is good, but I mostly sleep on the pavement along the flyover with a friend,” he says.
For girls in the street, it’s even tougher. Saswati, who works at the Chetana shelter, recounts the story of Paro who had a drug habit and spent all day with a drug-using group of boys. Some of them raped her, as did other men on the streets. But that both Shaan and Paro prefer the wild urban outdoors…what that says about the indoor can make you shudder.
(*Names have been changed to protect identity.)
By Ushinor Majumdar in Delhi with inputs from Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore, Neel Shah in Mumbai, Abdul Ghani in Guwahati and Naseer Ganai in Srinagar