In 2015, when Mumbai-based lawyer Manisha Tulpule was chairperson of the child welfare committee in Raigad district of Maharashtra, the panel was presented with a case of four runaway boys. The minors had escaped from a cattle-rearing farm in Pune district where they had been forced to work as child labourers, and had made their way to Pune city when they were finally found by the state police.

Under the Juvenile Justice Act, vulnerable children in need of care and protection from the state must be sent to the district child welfare committee, which determines the form of rehabilitation they require. In this case, the four boys were first sent to the committee in Pune, and then shuttled to the one in Raigad, their home district. They were temporarily housed in a state-funded children’s home, and the probation officer there submitted a preliminary case report to the child welfare committee. In a special office attached to the shelter home, the committee heard the case.

“When their report first came to us, it claimed that the boys were enrolled in a rural school and had been marked present, so they could not have been working in the cattle-rearing farm,” said Tulpule, who heard the case along with another member of the committee.

Dissatisfied with this rather illogical denial of the child labour charge, Tulpule and her colleague called upon a reputed child rights organisation to make inquiries with the boys’ school and submit a fresh report. As expected, this report revealed that the children had been marked present only on paper – they were not really attending school.

“All this while, goons representing the child labour contractors would somehow barge into our office and threaten us,” said Tulpule. “They would prop up the children’s parents and demand the release of the boys. This happened even though children’s homes are not allowed to let anyone into the premises without our permission. And even though we asked for police protection, we never got it.”

In its final order, the committee decided that the boys would remain under state protection at the children’s home. It also ordered the state education department to bring the boys’ school under the little-known Mahatma Phule Vastigraha Yojana, a state scheme to provide school hostel facilities for children whose parents are migrant workers. “But the latter part of our order was not followed by the government,” she said.

In November 2015, several months before her three-year term was to end, a disillusioned Tulpule resigned from Raigad district’s child welfare committee. The physical threats she faced in this particular case and the absence of police protection were the main reasons for her decision, but there were others too. “The CWC is supposed to be an independent judicial body under the Juvenile Justice Act,” said Tulpule, who was appointed to the Raigad committee in 2013. “But I soon realised that there was very little independence in making decisions and a lot of pressure from government departments.”

What the law says

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000 courted controversy in 2015 when it was amended to allow minors between 16 years and 18 years of age to be tried as adults for heinous crimes such as rape and murder. The amended law came into effect on January 15 last year. A little over a year later, its implementation is riddled with problems. Dealing with juvenile offenders, however, is not the only mandate of this comprehensive Act – the law also governs adoptions across the country and lays down the minimum standards of care and protection needed for all vulnerable children.

As per its provisions, every district in the country must set up a juvenile justice board, comprising a judicial magistrate and two social workers, to adjudicate cases of children in conflict with the law. Similarly, for children in need of care and protection, the law mandates the appointment of a child welfare committee in each district.

The required composition of such a committee attests to the importance the law gives to the participation of civil society in the protection of juveniles. Each committee must comprise five members – at least one of them a woman – who can be anyone with a degree of experience and expertise in matters related to children. They could be lawyers, social workers, healthcare workers or other professionals, all appointed by the state government for a term of three years.

The Juvenile Justice Act gives the child welfare committees the power and authority of a judicial bench, and its five members are supposed to have sittings at least thrice a week to hear cases related to the care, protection, treatment and rehabilitation of vulnerable children. These committees also determine whether a child needs to be put in a shelter home or foster care, and are required to inspect the functioning of such facilities.

The Act and its accompanying model rules for implementation provide exhaustive details on the role and functioning of ideal child welfare committees. On the ground, however, most of this idealism is nowhere to be seen. Across the country, child welfare committees struggle with poor infrastructure, low attendance, political interference and lack of accountability – and often, the added affront of not even being taken seriously.

Defunct, absent, inactive

In 2013, a research report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights revealed that at least 617 child welfare committees had been constituted in 638 districts in India (excluding Jammu and Kashmir). The number may seem impressive, until one considers the fact that a number of these bodies exist only on paper.

Take Uttarakhand, for instance. Two years ago, child welfare committees in most of its districts were found to be defunct, largely because the state had not bothered to reconstitute them when their terms expired. In Madhya Pradesh, 27 child welfare committees have either no members or no chairperson, which means resolving a case can take anytime between a month and a year. Earlier this year, the high case pendency in the state had fatal consequences – a 15-year-old abuse victim in Bhopal died while waiting for one such committee’s permission to be moved to a private hospital.

Unlike these extreme examples, the majority of child welfare committees in India do have all five members officially appointed. But there is little comfort to be drawn from that. According to the 2013 report, a large number of these members are regularly absent from sittings, particularly in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In some districts, individual members have been appointed to more than one child welfare committee, making it difficult for them to be regular attendees on either body.

“When I was in the Raigad CWC, there were two political appointees with no experience in child welfare work, so they were mostly absent or inactive,” said Tulpule. “One of them was a lawyer serving as a government pleader, so that was a direct conflict of interest.” Tulpule said she knew of at least two districts in Maharashtra where committee members had resigned for this reason.

Throwing their weight

The low attendance rates of committee members have an inevitable impact on the number of sittings and hearings conducted. If the Juvenile Justice Act requires child welfare committees to meet at least thrice a week, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights report found almost every state to be flouting this rule. Most committees conduct sittings just once a week, while some meet as rarely as once a fortnight or even once in three or four months.

As per the law, a committee cannot issue an order without the chairman and at least two other members present on the bench at the time. This rule, too, as Tulpule experienced, is routinely flouted.

The most common reason that members cite for being absent is “other professional commitments”, because workers with non-governmental organisations, lawyers or healthcare workers appointed to child welfare committees almost always have other jobs. Being a committee member is, by law, an honourary position, and members are paid between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 for each sitting they attend.

“But if someone has a regular job, they can’t be a regular part of a committee that is supposed to meet at least three times a week, leaving only people who are either retired or who have nothing else to do,” said Vidya Reddy, executive director of Tulir, a Chennai-based organisation that works with children who are victims of sexual violence. “For many people, being a member of a CWC is just one more position to display.”

Priti Patkar, whose organisation Prerana runs a children’s shelter in Raigad, claimed that members of child welfare committees are often preoccupied with their own positions rather than concerned about the best interest of children. “I have seen CWC members say things like, ‘Do you realise we are magistrates?’,” said Patkar, adding, “But they are not, actually.” While her own organisation has not faced any problem with the district’s child welfare committee in the past few years, Patkar said she has heard of cases where committee members threaten to shut down shelter homes instead of trying to improve them.

Poor infrastructure

The condition of child welfare committees across India also reveals the government’s glaring neglect of infrastructure in matters concerning vulnerable children.

The committee sittings, for instance, are supposed to be as child-friendly as possible, and the model rules of the Juvenile Justice Act list out a series of well-thought-out parameters to ensure that. These include explaining the proceedings to children, seating them at the same level as committee members, ensuring the police personnel who are present are not in their uniforms, and conducting the sittings in a well-lit room with toys and attractive pictures. Most importantly, the sittings are meant to be held close to childcare facilities, ideally rotating from one shelter home to another, so that the committee can inspect the homes as well.

In practice, however, many sittings are held in government offices far away from shelter homes, so that children are forced to travel for hearings. In many districts, the sessions are conducted in tiny rooms where children and family members are often forced to stand at the door. The children are also made to sit on the floor while the committee members sit on chairs. And there is a general lack of privacy.

These infrastructural failures are, predictably, connected to the share of children’s welfare within the Union Budget. From 2012-’13 to 2013-’14, this share was reduced from 4.7% to 4.6%, according to the 2013 report. The maximum cuts within that, however, were made in the component of child protection. While the 12th Planning Commission estimated that India would need Rs 1,060 crores per year to implement its child protection programmes, the government reduced this budget from Rs 400 crores in 2012-’13 to Rs 300 crores the next financial year.

Double bind

In the midst of all these problems, child welfare committees are often caught in the double bind of not having a well-defined body to monitor or evaluate them, and not being taken seriously by other stakeholders in the system.

Often, members find that the police, shelter home staff and the general public are not aware of the final authority the committees have in deciding cases related to vulnerable children. Their orders, then, are not complied with even by government-run shelter homes.

While it is widely assumed that a state’s women and child development department is in charge of monitoring a child welfare committee, the report of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights points out that there is no official mandate for this. “As such it would be unconstitutional for the WCD department to be in charge, because as a judicial committee, a CWC should be independent,” said Tulpule, who believes the district and high courts should supervise a child welfare committee’s work. “If the government department doesn’t work in the best interests of children, they don’t like it when CWCs do.”

Despite the gloom surrounding the functioning of these committees, there are some silver linings too. In Chhattisgarh, consistent training facilitated by the state office of the United Nations Children’s Fund have led to improvements in the condition of child welfare committees in the past five years.

“When I started working in Chhattisgarh in 2010, CWCs here were in pathetic shape, with a lot of political interference in their work,” said Gargi Saha, the child protection officer at Unicef Chhattisgarh. In 2011, Unicef began working with the state government to invite experienced resource persons from other states to train committee members. The training focused on dealing sensitively with children, defining the best interests of a child, and understanding the principles of non-discrimination.

“Today every district in the state has a functioning CWC, and even though they still have some political affiliations, their work has seen a lot of improvement,” said Saha. “Compared to the other states I have worked in, this is a big leap for a state like Chhattisgarh.”

This was the second story in the four-part series that aims to understand what ails the process of implementing well-intentioned laws. Read the first story here.