Monday, 9 June 2014

The Kids Aren't Alright

Why are children from Bihar and Jharkhand catching the train to God's own country? Jeemon Jacob uncovers the sordid racket of child trafficking in the name of charity

Jeemon Jacob


2014-06-14 , Issue 24 Volume 11

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Stranded Policemen note down the details of the children trafficked from Jharkhand


Foul play Orphanages in Kerala are using trafficked children to garner state funding


I want to go back home," whispers Hazeena as she stares out of the window. Nearby, a group of children talk among themselves in hushed tones. Their faces are filled with gloom and eyes flash with fear. They don't want to answer any questions. Little do they know that they have kicked up a political storm in Kerala.

Neither Hazeena, 8, who hails from a nondescript village in Jharkhand's Godda district, nor the other 167 children feel at home inside the large campus of the Noorul Huda Orphanage in Palakkad. They are tired after the long journey and fed up of answering inquisitive strangers.

The drama began on 24 May, when the Patna-Ernakulam Express screeched to a halt at the Palakkad Railway Station. A batch of 455 children under the age of 12, accompanied by 33 adults, stepped out. At the exit gate, the Railway Police detained the children and their caretakers as many were travelling without tickets.

When the Railway Police issued a fine of 1.27 lakh for ticketless travelling, the caretakers paid up. On further questioning, they spilled the beans. The children hailed from Bihar and Jharkhand and they were on their way to join the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage in Kozhikode district. Suspecting foul play, the Railway Police produced the children before the Child Welfare Committee, which sent them to local orphanages.

As the caretakers were unable to provide valid documents for transporting the children, the police registered a case of child trafficking under Section 370(5) of the Indian Penal Code. On the suspicion of smuggling minors, the police arrested four people — Moulana Faidullah, 26, and Abdul Haji Ansari, 32, both residents of Bhagalpur in Bihar, and Muhammed Alamgir, 24, of Godda and Muhammed Idrish Alam, 31, of Khola in Jharkhand. However, three other caretakers managed to escape.

The very next day, a batch of 123 children from Malda district in West Bengal arrived with four caretakers in the Thiruvananthapuram-bound Guwahati Express. The Railway Police detained and interrogated them. Later, they were produced before the Child Welfare Committee, which sent them to a different orphanage in Kozhikode.

The preliminary investigation revealed that the children were headed to the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, located at Vettathur in Malappuram district. Just like the previous batch, they had no valid documents to prove their claims.

The caretakers revealed that 64 out of the 123 children were already studying at the AMUP School in Vettathur, which is run by the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, and 59 children were going to join the orphanage in the new academic year. All the children were under the age of 14.

The new batch of 59 children who had come to join the orphanage were carrying certificates issued by their panchayat presidents and village officers and photocopies of their parents' electoral ID cards.

Soon, the manager of the Anwarul Huda Orphanage appeared before the Child Welfare Committee with his lawyer and demanded the release of the children. Established in 1998, the Anwarul Huda Orphanage is run by the Sunni Yuvajana Sangam.

'We Can't Turn A Blind Eye Towards The Violation Of Child Rights'

But the officials refused to budge and asked the government to conduct a detailed investigation regarding the child trafficking. On 26 May, 48 children were released after their parents produced valid certificates.

As the Railway Police invoked the anti-trafficking clause in the FIR, the orphanage managements sensed trouble. They started to put pressure on the state government with the help of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which is an ally of theCongress- led UDF government.

Initially, IUML leader and Social Welfare Minister MK Muneer tried to justify the orphanages' moves. But Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala took a hard stand against the IUML's bid to dilute the trafficking charges.

"I will not interfere in the investigation into the Palakkad incident," Chennithala told TEHELKA. "I have directed the Crime Branch to probe the case and submit its report within a week. The investigation is going on and I am awaiting the report. We will initiate action based on the report."

Angry IUML leaders hit back at his remark that "orphanages worried about poor children in Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand should do charity work in those states rather than bringing them to Kerala to fill the orphanages".

The Kerala Police's intelligence wing, which has been tracking similar cases, had recently submitted a report about agents who are trafficking poor children from other states to Kerala. The police suspect that a well-oiled network is canvassing parents to send their children to Kerala.

"Children belonging to poor families from other states were brought in as orphans and admitted to various orphanages run by charity organisations across Kerala," says the intelligence report. "These orphanages are registered under the Charitable Society Act and recognised by the Board of Control of Orphanages and other Charitable Homes and are receiving a monthly grant of Rs 900 per child from the social welfare department. The orphanages are bringing children from other states to claim the grant and list them as destitute children from Kerala. The state government is losing a huge amount of money in this regard every year. So, a multi -level investigation is needed to check the menace."

The report adds that many orphanages are also running government-aided schools and the shortage of students in those schools have forced them to cut teaching staff.

"In order to create more teaching posts, they bring children from other states and enrol them in their schools," says the report. "As the posts are auctioned to the highest bidder, each one can fetch as much as 10 lakh for a primary school teacher and 20 lakh for a higher secondary school teacher. In aided schools, the government pays the salaries of all the staff members."

Interestingly, TEHELKA found that both the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage and Anwarul Huda Orphanage brought children from other states for enrolment in their schools where the medium of instruction is Malayalam.

A cursory glance at the ID cards issued by the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, which also runs the AMUP School at Koduvathur in Malappuram, is enough to expose the tricks used to inflate the number of students. The cards don't indicate in which class the student is studying.

"None of the ID cards indicate which class the student is admitted to or studying in," says M Binu, the Railway Police inspector who detained the children. "We suspect that it has been done deliberately as the children can be put in any class where the number of students is falling short."

In another trick, the card issued to Emmadul Haque, son of Ishank, who resides at Chanchal in West Bengal's Malda district, has the details of his father's residential address and cell phone number. The card issued to Injamamaul Haque, son of MD Najrul Islam, also bears the same residential address and cell phone number.

On top of that, the phone number listed on the ID card was found to be that of the Government Higher Secondary School in Vettathur. When TEHELKA contacted the school authorities on the telephone number (04933 245704), the headmistress in charge, Beena, confirmed that the number belonged to the government school.

Beena adds that though many inmates from Anwarul Huda Orphanage are studying there, no student from other states was studying in the high school classes.

The destitute certificates produced by the orphanages from Jharkhand and Bengal indicate that they were forged, as around 30 destitute certificates issued by different village officers have the same handwriting.

Initial probes show that the destitute certificates issued by the village officers are fake, says Manish Sinha, assistant director of the labour department in Jharkhand.

Dying Malnourished In The IT Hub

Three children died from malnutrition this year in Bengaluru, while the government was caught napping. Imran Khan reports

Imran Khan


2014-06-14 , Issue 24 Volume 11

Killed by neglect Six-year-old Meghala's death from malnutrition last July exposed the miserable state of the ICDS programme in Bengaluru

Killed by neglect Six-year-old Meghala's death from malnutrition last July exposed the miserable state of the ICDS programme in Bengaluru

The people of Karnataka are no longer shocked by news of children dying from malnutrition in the interiors of the state, where one child on an average dies every day due to lack of adequate nutrition. However, there was a time when no one could have anticipated that children living in the heart of the it hub Bengaluru could die from malnutrition. That was before the grim reality hit the headlines last year.

No wonder, the revelation led to a huge public uproar, forcing the state government to promise measures to ensure that no child in the city dies from inadequate nutrition in the future. Six months later, however, nothing has changed on the ground. Not only did the state fail to live up to its promise, it actually went two steps back and shockingly rolled back what it had been delivering earlier.

Anganwadis ('courtyard shelters'), started by the Central government in 1975 under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, are supposed to play a key role in combating hunger and malnutrition among poor children. But, according to activists and parents, mid-day meals were not served in any of the anganwadis in Bengaluru for three months from January to March. Activists allege that this led to the death of three children in Devarajeevanahalli, better known as DJ Halli, which is a large contiguous locality comprising several slums inhabited by low-income families in the northern part of the city. Muslims constitute a majority of the around 1 lakh population of DJ Halli.

When TEHELKA sought to verify the claims of the activists, a Primary Health Centre (PHC) official confirmed these deaths, but could not divulge more details as she was on leave.

Incidentally, DJ Halli is the same locality where the first case of death by malnutrition in Bengaluru had come to light last July. Meghala, the six-year-old child who died, reportedly weighed just 12 kg. A number of activists and civil society groups had then taken up the issue, which was also highlighted in the media. This had drawn the attention of the then newly-formed Siddaramaiah-led Congress government to the miserable plight of the people living in the area.

On 29 August 2013, Karnataka Minister for Women and Child Development Umashree convened a meeting in her office, where several decisions were made on the steps to be taken to combat malnutrition. Among these was a plan to open 40 new anganwadis in DJ Halli, a special drive to provide BPL cards to the families of all the severely malnourished children, and a Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre at the government hospital in DJ Halli. Nine months after the meeting, not a single anganwadi has been opened by the state. Not even a building has come up. Responding to a Right to Information (RTI) query, ministry officials said that they are still in the process of recruiting teachers for the anganwadis. The minister was unavailable for comment.

"The state government is yet to fulfil the promises it made to the people of DJ Halli last year," says Narasimha, a Bengaluru- based activist of the civil society group Alternative Law Forum.

Bengaluru has been divided into three zones for the purpose of administering the anganwadis across the city. While the central and northern zones are managed by the state government directly, anganwadis in the rest of city — referred to as Sumangali Sevashram — are run by a private contractor with aid from the government. Currently, there are around 1,000 anganwadis in the three zones, and the estimated number of beneficiaries exceeds 1 lakh.

On an average, the government spends around Rs 6 per day per child on mid-day meals, and around Rs 8 per day on children classified as Severely Acute Malnourished (SAM). "The anganwadis also serve mid-day meals to pregnant women and lactating mothers, on whom the government spends around Rs 5 per day," informs Narasimha. The response to an RTI query filed by Narasimha revealed that the state government has earmarked a monthly budget of Rs 80 lakh for the central zone, Rs 70 lakh for the northern zone and Rs 40 lakh for the rest of the city. "So, why were mid-day meals not served at the angwanwadis from January to March?" asks Narasimha. "The government is yet to give an answer to that. And most importantly, as the food was not served, where did the money go? The women and child development department is sitting on a financial scam in the distribution of midday meals."

Officials of the department brushed aside these questions, arguing that the food was not supplied only for a few weeks. However, they did not reveal the exact number of weeks when no mid-day meals were distributed. N Muni Reddy, joint director, ICDS, told TEHELKA, "Midday meals could not be distributed because of some gap with the food and civil supplies department."

When contacted, CS Joshi, deputy general manager for Karnataka of the Food Corporation of India, denied that there was any such gap. "We are supplying for many schemes floated by the Union government under the Food Security Act. And we do not have any shortage. If they (the women and child development department) are finding some shortage, it is because of their internal problems," says Joshi.

TEHELKA found out that three officials functioning under the women and child development department, including Deputy Director (ICDS) Ramesh Halabhavi, have been suspended recently. Joint Director Reddy acknowledged that the suspension orders were issued because "the three officials did not properly supervise the distribution of food".

Surprisingly, however, even after a month since the suspensions, the department is yet to form an inquiry committee. Reddy says the department is looking for a retired judge to head the inquiry and the department's secretary will soon take a call on that. But he refused to reveal if there was any misappropriation of funds.

The condition of children's nutrition in the Bengaluru slums reflects the situation across large parts of Karnataka. According to a 2011 report titled 'Child Malnutrition in Karnataka', prepared by lawyer Clifton D'Rozario, state adviser for the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, 44 percent of the children under five years are too short for their age, indicating that they have been undernourished for some time; 18 percent are too thin for their height, likely to be caused by inadequate food intake for a short time or a recent illness; and 38 percent are underweight, which takes into account both chronic and acute under-nutrition.

Besides the worrying figures, activists are also critical of the government's plans to hand over distribution of midday meals to private players. In fact, the government had begun implementing it in 2012, when the mining giant Vedanta was given the responsibility to distribute mid-day meals to 2 lakh children in four districts. Recently, the government decided to involve private companies in mid-day meal distribution in three more districts — Tumkur, Dharwad and Bangalore Rural. Activists cite a Supreme Court judgment of 2004 to point out that the involvement of private players as middlemen in food distribution schemes is a violation of the law and add that such initiatives have led to disastrous results, including corruption.

For instance, in 2012, a probe by the Karnataka Lokayukta had revealed that officials of the women and child development department were siphoning off funds meant for mid-day meals in connivance with the contractor, a company called Christy Friedgram Industry.

Even as activists and the government argue over the right way to combat malnutrition, the spectre of malnourished children continues to haunt parts of the state, including the slums in the capital.