Trafficking allegations hit credibility of orphanages

Trafficking allegations hit credibility of orphanages

It was a strange sort of homecoming for a group of children from Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal as they were taken back to their home states after a controversial two-week stay in Kerala that had become their adopted home, almost.

 Television footage showed blurred faces of giggling children as they ran around in compartments of the train that would take them home; some of them sang songs, gleefully oblivious to reports that they were being rescued after having been “trafficked” to orphanages in the north Kerala districts of Malappuram and Kozhikode.

Railway Police had on May 24 and 25 intercepted 589 children aged below 12 years along with some parents and other men who brought many of these children to the two orphanages without the mandatory permissions, at the Palakkad railway station. Parents of some of the children were summoned as part of an investigation after the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) took serious note of the incident.

The subsequent arrest of middlemen has exposed an organised racket that pays parents money – at times as low as Rs 1,000 – to transport these children to Kerala, offering them hope for education and a better life. More than 150 children detained in Palakkad have returned home in batches but the trafficking allegations are likely to hit credibility of orphanages run by charity trusts across the state.

As the orphanage administrators maintain that they are only taking in children from socio-economically backward families to provide education and prepare them for a good life, the debate is now centred on orphanages that allegedly flout rules and tweak admission processes to attract charity funds and grants. After a guarded initial response, the state government said there could have been “procedural lapses” but refrained from calling it trafficking. Child Welfare Committee (CWC) members insist that the Palakkad incident had clear shades of a human trafficking case and call for measures that go beyond political correctness and ensure stronger regulation of private orphanages in the state.

Fr Jose Paul, chairman of CWC in Palakkad district that played a crucial role in returning the children to their home states, said more stringent regulation of admission processes followed by orphanages is long due. Despite arrests made under the Juvenile Justice Act and a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) notice to Chief Secretaries and Directors General of Police (DGPs) in Kerala and Jharkhand, the incident has not led to a government assurance on better tracking of orphanage management in the state. Child rights activists seek more teeth for the Board of Control of Orphanages and other Charitable Homes that doubles as a regulator for the more than 2,000 registered orphanages in Kerala as more reports of faulty admission and abuse within orphanages emerged. They also demand policies that explain in clear terms provisions that allow children living with parents to be enrolled into orphanages.

Education imparted

“In some of these orphanages, all that is imparted is religious education. There could be the argument that the system allows children from poor families into a school set-up but the child’s right to normal education is violated there,” said Fr Paul. The Palakkad CWC says prima facie evidence pointed to possibilities of trafficking to the two orphanages – the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage in Kozhikode and the Anwarul Huda Orphanage at Vettathur in Malappuram – and backed the charges by pointing out discrepancies in documents carried by the children and men who accompanied them. The overcrowded train compartments had many children travelling without tickets.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government also had political compulsions forcing it into a cautious approach on the issue; the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage has leaders of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) – the most prominent Congress ally in the ruling front – as some of its administrators. Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala’s initial response doubting credentials of orphanages that bring in children from other states was greeted with snide retorts from Muslim outfits and the government soon shifted to damage control mode. The men who run the orphanage in Mukkam, however, look beyond the controversy and point to the institution’s 58-year history that has also seen it winning national-level awards.

“These are our own children returning after their annual vacation in their native states. We had reserved seats for all of them but their relatives and other children in the family whom they wanted to enrol here entered the train without tickets. Children who were already living in our orphanage were clubbed with others and handed over to the CWC; we had to go through a long administrative process before we got back 207 of our children,” said Abdul Gafoor, academic director of the orphanage.

 The orphanage management says it doesn’t take responsibility of children who approach them without the “proper” documents. “This is primarily an educational institution that has produced doctors, engineers and IAS officers. We can’t comment on quality of education provided in other orphanages but we are offering good standards; we have even employed teachers from the children’s home states to ensure that the students don’t feel out of place,” said Gafoor.

Many of the detained children possessed Aadhaar cards issued in Kerala, leading to more questions on the admission processes. “The CWC acted solely to protect interests of the children. Police and legal action will take their course that’s beyond our scope. The incident is a trigger; we are pushing for stronger rules to monitor functioning of all orphanages,” said Fr Paul. A month after the arrests, the Kerala High Court has recommended a CBI probe into the trafficking allegations. It could be the decisive push child rights activists bank on as they seek tighter controls over functioning of orphanages.

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