Maharashtra, hailed as a progressive state, is, ironically, one of the cruellest of the lot. It never really cared about the children, especially the destitute and the homeless, leaving them vulnerable to sexual abuse and other forms of torture. The horrendous treatment meted out to the young boys and girls — forced into unnatural sex, made to starve and eat dog excreta and locked up on flimsy pretext — over the years in a Karjat shelter home plumbs a new low in depravity. It should force us to rethink our roles and responsibilities as adults, and shame the society into admitting to its criminal negligence towards those who desperately need love, affection, care and warmth.
In the 11 years since the Karjat home became operational — it was not even registered to begin with — neither the state administration, the police, the women and child development department, the Child Welfare Committee or the social justice department bothered to figure out how it was run, or how it could come up in the first place without proper authorisation. This is the worst form of callousness, reiterating once again poor co-ordination among the various arms of the government.
The shocking details came to light when a boy from the home narrated the ordeal to his mother, a domestic help in Pune. She sought the help of her employers and a child helpline was contacted. As the murky details emerged, and the local police came into the picture, child rights’ activists expressed concerns over the way the probe was conducted. Now with the local crime branch taking up the job, two previous cases of unnatural deaths are being looked into afresh — of a child in that home who had “accidentally” strangled himself in 2012 and the husband of the caretaker — one of the prime accused — who died under mysterious circumstances in 2009.
It was believed that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, would bring about a much-needed change in the system, making it more humane and sensitising various stakeholders dealing with traumatised children. The other wonderful aspect of POCSO is that the police investigating a case are also responsible for victim protection. The stringent punishment prescribed in the new act, including life imprisonment and a steep fine, was considered to be effective deterrent. However, an unusual reluctance to enforce the provisions in POCSO resulted in little improvement in ground realities. From the time it came into force in November 2012 till October 2013, over 1,100 cases were filed in Maharashtra under various provisions of the Act, but till January this year only 38 cases were disposed of and nine persons were convicted. The state government had come up with a raft of guidelines when media reports exposed the abuse and torture at state-run shelters in 2010, but they remained only on paper.
The growing incidence of abuse of children and teenagers is a pan-Indian phenomenon where 42 per cent of the population is below the age of 18. Surprisingly, a nation that takes immense pride in its culture and traditions and lays a strong emphasis on family values doesn’t find it shocking when the rights of a significant section of the population are systematically violated. India’s march to progress will depend a lot on its youth. Neglecting them early on in life will have a catastrophic effect on the country’s future.