Muzaffarpur Shelter Home Rapes: How Did the Law Fail? 

It was corruption at every level of authority that allowed the crimes to remain undiscovered for so long.

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Opinion
5 min read
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In 2017, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) was asked to audit all state-run shelter homes by the Department of Social Welfare of the Government of Bihar. Three months after they submitted their report, an FIR was registered against eleven people, for the alleged rape and torture of thirty-four out of the forty-four girls, all aged between 7-14 years, staying in a Muzaffarpur shelter home.

The owner of the NGO that ran the shelter home, Brajesh Thakur, was arrested on 2 June, although he hardly spent any time in prison since he was shifted to the hospital ward of Muzaffarpur district jail. The chargesheet reveals that the girls were drugged using syringes, there were signs of sexual and physical assault, some girls had undergone abortions, and some were pregnant at the time of their rescue.

A murder is also being investigated, after the girls told the police that a fellow inmate was killed for resisting rape, and buried in the premises of the same shelter home. The victims have been moved to three shelter homes across Bihar. Activists and Opposition leaders had raised concerns about their safety, since they are key witnesses who will testify against the accused persons, in the courts. The fears were not unfounded as a 13-year-old girl has mysteriously gone missing from the shelter home in Madhubani and has not been traced yet.

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 is a comprehensive legislation that deals with all aspects of child protection and welfare. The two categories of children to whom the Act applies are ‘Juvenile in conflict with law’, which is beyond the scope of this explainer, and ‘children in need of care and protection’.

Child Welfare Committee

Children who are found without a home, or whose guardians do not or cannot take care of them, or are found abandoned or in a vulnerable condition, are ‘children in need of care and protection’ under JJ Act.

According to the procedure prescribed in the Act, any such child has to be mandatorily produced before the District Child Welfare Committee (CWC). CWC is the go-to organisation with wide-ranging powers for all affairs concerning a ‘child in need of care and protection’.

CWC directs a social worker or its own officials to prepare a social investigation report of the child.

The social investigation report records, inter alia, age, sex, health status, caste, religion, child’s family details (if available), disability or special needs, present living condition, addictions, literacy level, and psycho-social expert’s analysis. Based on this, CWC decides the further course of action. Therefore, in all cases, like in the present one, it is on the orders and under the supervision of CWC that a child is sent to a shelter home. It is also the responsibility of the CWC to select a registered institution for placement of each child requiring institutional support, based on their specific needs. CWC is mandated to conduct at least two follow up inspection visits per month.

Composition of CWC

The 5-member Committee consists of a Chairperson and four other members, appointed by the state government. The requirements are that, at least one of the four must be a woman, and all members must have been involved in health, education or welfare activities OR are practicing professionals with a degree in child psychology/psychiatry/law/social-work/sociology/human development.

Basically, the state government is given a long rope by the Act to appoint anyone they like, since the “requirements” are not particularly tough to fulfill. The District Magistrate is mandated to conduct a quarterly review of the functioning of the Committee. This means that ideally a DM must be made accountable for any gross misconduct that might happen in shelter homes under their jurisdiction, must it come to trial.

Mismanagement of Shelter Homes

Shelter homes are child care institutions. They could be run wholly by the government, or could be run by an NGO, to whom government allocates funds for the purpose. Either way, they are required to be registered with the state government. Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Model Rules, 2016 ensures that standards are maintained by listing down necessary facilities and parameters on which auditors are expected to judge and review the homes.

According to a recent press release by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, as of 31 December 2017, out of the 9000-odd shelter homes in the country, 2,000 shelter homes were still unregistered.

After the hue and cry over the events of past two months, the Ministry claims that it has ordered audit of all shelters homes in collaboration with NCPR and ordered to shut down the ones which do not get their registration done.

Every childcare institution is required to have a management committee for monitoring the affairs of the home and progress of each child. The chairperson of this committee is the District Child Protection Officer.

Key Accused in Muzaffarpur Shelter Home Case

The Muzaffarpur Shelter Home was a registered one. The home, along with a residential vocational centre and an old age home, received funds to the tune of Rs 1 cr from the Centre and state governments, as per some reports.

The following have been named as the accused in the police chargesheet:

  • Brajesh Thakur: Owner of the now-blacklisted NGO which ran the shelter home. Thakur is said to be well-connected in the power corridors of Bihar, evident by the fact that he was appointed as the member of the Press Accreditation, Press Information Bureau and the Bihar Assembly Press Committee, among others.
  • Dilip Kumar Verma: Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee. Verma is absconding.
  • Vikas Kumar: Member, Child Welfare Committee
  • Ravi Raushan: Child Protection Officer, Chairperson of the Shelter Home Management Committee
  • Chandeshwar Verma: Involved with management of Shelter Home. He is also the husband of Manju Verma, Minister of Social Welfare Department, who recently resigned under immense pressure from the Opposition as well as leaders of BJP, her own party’s alliance partners.
  • Officer bearers and employees of Shelter Home.

The Rot Runs Deep

As can be gathered from above, it was the responsibility of each and every one in the list of accused to ensure the protection and welfare of minor girls, who were under their care. Even a cursory glance at the positions held by the accused shows that they had special privileges and access given to them by the law, which they allegedly abused. More terrifying is the fact that all of them were appointed by the state government. It is in this context that the Supreme Court calling the horrific crimes committed in the shelter home, “state-sponsored incidents” makes complete sense.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), the same NGO had got another government project for the rehabilitation of beggars, which was cancelled only after an FIR against Brajesh Thakur and others was filed, ie, almost three months after the TISS report was submitted.

It would therefore be safe to assume that at least officials of the Social Welfare Department were aware of the NGO’s culpability, and yet gave the project to that NGO.

So while Nitish Kumar rubbishes protests against the rape and torture of children by calling them politically motivated (to distract the citizens from the issue of corruption), someone must tell him that it was “corruption” – of officials at every level of the government machinery – because of which criminal activities went on unabated for four years, before an external auditor blew the lid off the crime.

(The author is a lawyer based in New Delhi, and a graduate from NALSAR University of Law. She currently works with a gender-rights and labour-rights advocacy group. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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