By Uma Sudhir
There was no one to stop us or ask any questions as I walked in along with my camera crew into Mahbubnagar district government hospital in Mahbubnagar town. “You don’t need any permission,” a local volunteered.
We were here, 100 km from Hyderabad, looking for a 8-year-old orphan child who came into this hospital in the third week of April, severely malnourished, bruised and broken. A victim of child abuse.
We found Rajitha fast asleep on the visitors’ bench even though Rajitha’s bed and several others in the children’s ward were empty. The nurse incharge told me, Rajitha asked to be allowed to sleep here, where the sisters hung around, instead of being all alone on her bed. The child was obviously afraid, insecure and craved to belong, to be accepted, to be cared for. Something she probably never experienced so far in her life.
As soon as my cameraperson got his camera out, the nurses shifted Rajitha back to her bed and insisted on putting her on the drip. “It won’t look proper otherwise.” Rajitha let out a sharp cry of pain. With virtually no muscle tissue, she was only skin and bone. A frail child of just about 12 kg. Worse than underweight for her age. She obviously couldn’t muster the energy or will to keep up the protest. So the mousey rebellion subsided but her eyes had spotted us strangers around her and were following us around, even though she herself wouldn’t or couldn’t move.
The next ten minutes or so, I spent trying to befriend Rajitha. The trauma of what she has lived through obviously didn’t make it easy for this child to either trust or warm up to my questions. Initially she ignored my questions. Only her eye movements indicating she had heard me. The first time she smiled was when I asked if she would like me to get flowers to put in her hair. Next I asked if she would like icecream, chips, chocolate. Slowly the child in her began to open up.
Rajitha says she has no parents, no one. She was picked up from the station by `Sir’ who took her to his hostel where there were a few other children. Was that six months back, one year or two years ago, she had no idea of time. Since she was an orphan, through a mediator, she was offered in `adoption’ to another family who said they wanted her because they had no daughter. Whether money exchanged hands is not known yet.
She was never treated as a daughter by the family that took her. There were six grown-up sons and Rajitha became the domestic help who could be made to do all sorts of jobs. Making a mistake at work would invite immediate retribution, of the physical kind. There was no one to ask any questions. What’s more, she needed to be paid no salary. It is doubtful if she even got enough food to eat, considering when she landed at the hospital, she was diagnosed a grade IV malnutriton case, with severe anaemia, osteomyelitis and related complications. The bruises on her body telling her story of abuse and neglect.
Rajitha was sharp enough to remember the phone number of the man who she had trusted and who had let her down. That’s how Premnath, the so-called children’s hostel incharge was contacted. I still can’t get over the pain in Rajitha’s voice as she pleaded, her voice crackling with pain and tears, “Please take me away. Please take me away. They don’t take good care of me. They beat me.”
Premnath says his hostel is a Residential Bridge Course Centre and apparently depended on funds from some overseas agencies and the government, through the National Child Labour Project. Asked why he gave Rajitha away, he admits he was not getting enough financial support and that’s why he decided to give the children away, to whoever would take them. “After giving away the children, Rajitha and a couple of others were left. I gave Rajitha to this family and I have two of them at my home,” said Premnath.
Hours after NDTV aired the report on Rajitha, the Mahbubnagar district police registered cases against Premnath for running an illegal orphanage and possibly selling children. As also Narayana, the man who took her as a `daughter’ and allegedly abused her as domestic labour. There is now an attempt being made to trace out other children who were in the orphanage and also take a hard look at other such children’s homes, whose actions have no legal sanction.
Even as Rajitha’s story of deprivation, abuse and denial of basic rights was being aired on NDTV, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister was ironically launching a Society for the Protection and Empowerment of Women and Children and boasted of becoming the first state to formulate an action-plan under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. Clearly, the distance between Hyderabad and Mahbubnagar was much, much more than just 100 km.
Officials of the Women and child Welfare department admit it is very easy to register an NGO. Director Usha Rani says, “The question is of their regulation. They can register but they can’t sell children or use the children to get funding.” Rules that were quite easily flouted even as babudom kept busy with pretty sarkari functions.
What’s surprising is that regulation and inspection of such orphanages has been so lax despite Andhra Pradesh’s notorious past. After NDTV’s expose on an international baby-selling racket in the late nineties, the government had cracked down on children’s homes and cancelled their licence to give babies in adoption.
In my reporting career, I have come across several children’s homes and private houses that have kept children illegallly. And quite a few of them have been in the middle of a scandal some time or the other. So much so that I have always looked at such homes with a degree of suspicion, even when all looked well.
Isidore Philips, one of the very well-respected child rights activists in Andhra Pradesh points out that this will continue to happen because there is no framework to monitor and track children. “Anybody can pick up a child, keep a child illegally in a home or at their house. We would not have any way to know they can’t be kept there or don’t belong there. The Juvenile Justice Act 34 (3) says all homes or organisations that have children should be registered. But that is not being implemented in AP.”
It is because of lacunae of this sort that most homes are often unable to answer questions on where the children they have came from and where they have gone. There is no centralised updated online registry to even compare missing children with those found. So they simply disappear. That is how small children who go missing and may not remember the address back home, go missing forever.
One case we came across was of a child brought in by an agent as child labour to Hyderabad in January 2007. She was abused and ran away. Matter of coincidence that she was reported missing in the same police station where she was reported found later by a childline activist. And yet there was no mechanism to match the two records. So another six months passed by, with the parents looking for the child while the child was in a children’s home, when by mere accident during a shoot, we found the girl and she was reunited with her parents.
In Rajitha’s case, it is not just Premnath and Narayana who have to answer questions. What happened to India’s grand Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and its network of anganwadis and workers who should have monitored and stopped a child like Rajitha from slipping into a case of severe malnutrition, abuse and neglect.
There are many, many more Rajithas out there. Who need a helping hand, a caring society, and a government and administrative machinery that prioritises the needs of our children. If we refuse to look beyond our cosy worlds and worries, once in a rare while, a Rajitha emerges from the shadows, forcing us to face questions about who we really are. And confront the ugly truth about ourselves because there are no pretty answers.
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