Sunday, April 28, 2013

When protectors turn predators


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 28, 2013

Not safe anywhere.
APNot safe anywhere.

‘Child sexual abuse in juvenile justice institutions [in India] is rampant, systematic and has reached epidemic proportions,’ says a damning report from the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR).

This past week, “rape” is once again the topic of discussion. There has been despair and outrage because this time we also have to talk about a child, a girl, just five years old. Just as the young woman gang-raped on December 16, 2012 was not the first, and certainly not the last, this little girl sadly is also not the first, nor the last.
Even the daily list of rapes that now inhabit our news pages does not indicate the extent of the sickness that is now staring us in the face. According to a distressing report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), 48,338 children have been raped in the decade between 2001 and 2011. In these 10 years, there has been a 336 per cent increase in the number of child rapes. Yet, this is only a very partial picture because, as the report emphasises, the majority of child rapes are never reported.
The report is disturbing because it focuses on those institutions where children are supposed to be “protected” — observation homes, shelter homes, children’s homes and special homes designed to take care of children who have been abandoned, have run away or been trafficked. Yet, as the 56 pages of the ACHR report titled “India’s hell holes” details, scores of these children, girls and boys, are raped, sodomised, tortured, forced to work and condemned to live in “inhuman conditions”. The authors of the report conclude: “Child sexual abuse in juvenile justice institutions is rampant, systematic and has reached epidemic proportions.”
Just as stronger laws have been demanded to deal with rape, there are laws to address sexual assaults on children. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2006 was enacted for this purpose. In addition, last year the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 was brought in to specifically deal with such crimes against children. Yet, as the report illustrates, these laws have been rendered toothless with the deliberate violation of their provisions in state after state. For instance, under the law, all homes that shelter children are supposed to be registered. Yet scores of these institutions continue to function without registration or oversight and there is no provision in the law to punish them for this. In any case, even formal registration makes little difference as is evident from what happens in officially recognised institutions. The atrocities against children taking place in such places escape discovery because the mandated Inspection Committees that are supposed to carry out surprise checks either do not exist, or if they do, do not function.
As a result, all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, are common in such “protection” homes. The report lists just 39 instances but they read like a modern-day horror story. In each instance, young children who are led to believe that they are in a safe environment end up being sexually abused by the very people tasked to look after them — wardens, watchmen and other staff as well as older inmates. The protectors become the predators. From several of these “hell holes” children have run away, never to be traced. In Karnataka, between 2005 and 2011, 1,089 children below 14 are missing from 34 children’s homes. The story is repeated in West Bengal and other states. Where are these children? How can they disappear from places where they are supposed to be protected? What kind of torture did they experience to force them to run away?
One of the worst horror stories is that of two unregistered homes in Mansarovar and Jagatpura in Jaipur. On March 12, the Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, accompanied by local activists and the media raided the homes and rescued 51 children, 27 girls and 24 boys. Of these, 21 were from Manipur, six each from Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh, four each from Assam, Nepal, Rajasthan and Punjab and two from Delhi. The homes were filthy, the food had fungus and the children said they had been locked into the homes. But that was not all. The girls spoke of sexual abuse including being forced to sleep with the man running the home. A 17-year-old girl from Nagaland said she had been repeatedly raped from the age of 11. The children had been lured to the home with a promise of good food and education. Instead, they were served inedible food and educated in sexual torture. This is only one story. The other 38 documented in the report are equally horrific.
So if children are not safe in these “protection homes” and they are not safe in their own homes, what is the answer? It is evident that just having stronger laws is not enough of a deterrent. At the same time, the demand for instant solutions, even if it is understandable in the face of the daily deluge of such atrocities, will solve little.
The significance of so many more people feeling incensed and angry at this state of affairs is that it will turn the spotlight onto the dark corners, like these protection homes where child sexual abuse has been part of the system. Even if we have woken up to the horror of child sexual abuse because of one atrocity, we must recognise that this malady is not skin deep. It has afflicted the entire body.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Death by design

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 14, 2013

A collapse of faith?
APA collapse of faith?

The Mumbra building collapse highlights the ugly reality behind lofty promises of world-class housing.

On Thursday April 4, the earth shook. Not because there was an earthquake. It trembled when the deadly mix of sand pretending to be cement brought down a seven-storey building in Mumbra, north of Mumbai, like “a pack of cards”. This was not an accident: it was death by design.
The murky stories of collusion between municipal officials, the local police and the builders are now surfacing. For a few lakhs, even a few thousand rupees, these officials looked the other way while the merchants of death went about building something that was destined to collapse. There was illegality written into every word of the script — from the land deal to the building permissions to even the electricity connection. What levels of cynicism and heartlessness must it require for people to actually construct a building, entice poor and desperate people to occupy it while construction continues, and then watch it collapse on top of these unwary residents?
The 75 men, women and children who died and the over 60 injured committed no crime. Their only fault was to believe that a “pucca” house is any structure built of brick and cement. And if it is multi-storied, it must be even stronger. For unlike their temporary structures in the slums, they presumed that such construction must require some engineering expertise.
It is too late for many of them to realise how wrong they were. There are heartrending stories of workers who brought their families from their villages because finally, they could “afford” a house. An entire family from Nepal has been wiped out, leaving only a 10-year-old boy and the grandparents who are still in Nepal. Infants have been orphaned; families are left without their main breadwinner. Every story is the same. They heard they could rent a place cheap and moved in.
The ripples from the collapse of this one building will be felt much farther than its immediate neighbourhood. One of the most disturbing aspects is the extent of illegality. When you have the Chief Minister of the state acknowledging that nine out of 10 buildings in the area were illegal, you know that this is not the story of one building falling down. How can there be such a state of affairs without rampant collusion at every level? If the CM had said 10 per cent — or even 20 per cent — of the buildings were illegal, one could have accepted that the authorities were making an effort to check illegality but some just slipped through the cracks. But 90 per cent?
While the illegality is excavated, what does this collapse say about the desperation for housing in a city like Mumbai where the majority can only dream of an affordable house in their lifetime while a minority is spoilt for choice? It suggests that if you chance on a house you think is affordable, it is likely to become a nightmare before long. It is within your price range only because corners have been cut at every step of the way. In other words, if you are poor, you will find “affordable” if you are willing to accept “illegal”.
Try and imagine what a poor family, living for generations in one of Mumbai’s many slums, would feel right now. For the women, in particular, the dream of a ‘pucca’ house carries with it the hope of some dignity because of a toilet in the house, and a reduction in the daily drudgery of collecting scarce water. Although life in the seven-storey structures built as part of the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is far from perfect, no woman will refuse to take the keys to a flat in one of these structures. But these are the women whose families are considered “eligible” depending on their ability to prove that they have lived in that particular slum before the government-ordained “cut-off” date.
What of those who not eligible, or who came to the city in the last 10 years, or who lived in one of the many old, dilapidated buildings that are on the verge of collapse? These are the people who hunt for rental housing and often the only choice for them is buildings like the one that collapsed. Some might not collapse. But they are falling apart within months of completion. And if you are one of these people who thought you had got a bargain, you count your blessings that you have a roof over your head and pray that it will not come down on you one day.
This then is the true picture of housing not just in Mumbai but in all our cities. It is not what you can easily be deluded to believe — the story of the “world-class” housing advertised in pretty pictures on the front pages of practically every newspaper and on large hoardings. It is the ugly reality represented by the horrifying images of the building collapse in Mumbra. Cheap, dangerous, illegal constructions are spawning everywhere, with the blessings of the people in power. Everyone is making money — while the poor are literally getting crushed.
(To read the original, click here.)