After reports of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse of children in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh’s shelter homes emerged in July and August, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi said that it was likely that“many more” such cases are yet to be uncovered. She explained that the government had failed to pay close attention to child shelter homes, beyond giving them funds.

But the government’s neglect of child protection extends even to financial support, say activists. The Budgetary allocation for children has witnessed a steady decline since 2014, according to an analysis of the Union Budget by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability. From 4.2% in 2014-’15, the allocation dipped to 3.3% from 2016 to 2018, and rose marginally to 3.4% in 2018-’19. This includes spending on schemes pertaining to education, health, development and protection of children

The report points out that in India, children constitute 39% of the total population. According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s National Plan of Action for Children, 2016, at least 5% of the Budget should be spent on children.

The analysis also found that though spending on the government-run Integrated Child Protection Scheme, a government-run programme for vulnerable children, has increased steadily over the years, the allocation for a scheme targetted at marginal groups has registered a sharp decline. Funds allotted to the Scheme for Working Children in Need of Care and Protection fell by 99% from Rs 7 crore in 2015-’16, to Rs 0.01 crore in 2018-’19.

Regulatory framework

The Integrated Child Protection Scheme, launched in 2009, works to safeguard economically or socially vulnerable children as well as those in conflict with law.

Its main objectives are to institutionalise essential services, build a database of child protection services, undertake research and documentation, create and promote preventative measures to protect children from situations of vulnerability and raise awareness about child rights and protection.

The scheme is supposed to work in tandem with the Juvenile Justice Act and ensure its effective implementation at the state and district levels by supporting the creation of new institutions for child care and maintaining existing ones.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, covers children in conflict with the law – defined as someone below 18 years who is alleged or found to have committed an offence – as well as children in need of care and protection. The latter category includes children without homes or a means of sustenance, those found begging or working in violation of labour laws, those vulnerable to sexual abuse and trafficking and those whose parents or guardians have been found unfit to ensure their well-being. It also includes children with mental or physical disabilities.

The Act mandates separate kinds of facilities for children in conflict with the law and those in need of care or protection. Under the Act, a “special home” is an institution set up by the state government or a non-governmental organisation to provide rehabilitative services for children in conflict with law. For children in need of care and protection, the law prescribes institutions such as open shelters and foster care homes, run by the state government or by non-governmental organisations.

The Balika Grih, shelter in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur, where at least 34 minor girls were allegedly sexually abused, housed lost or destitute girls. The shelter was funded by the state government and run by the NGO Seva Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti. The sexual exploitation at the shelter home came to light after Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences reported it in its audit report, submitted in April.

Findings such as these show the poor implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act, said Deepika Khatri, a child rights activist. “The kinds of children that live in these shelter homes are not always orphaned,” she said. “They could be abandoned under different circumstances or were compelled to leave their homes early on due to different reasons. These homes have a huge mix of traumatised kids. There is a lack of interest and effort to implement the Juvenile Justice Act. Such homes should be blacklisted.”

Need for monitoring

Under the Juvenile Justice Act, such institutions are mandated to provide basic amenities such as food, shelter, clothing and medical attention for children along with education and other requirements.

Under Section 54 of this Act, state governments have to appoint inspection committees to conduct surveys at these centres once every three months, comprising three members including a woman and a medical officer. A report about the inspection should have to be submitted to the District Child Protection Unit or the state government.

But such monitoring rarely takes place, said activists. “There are mostly NGO-run homes [in Bihar]. The government has been contracting out responsibility to NGOs, but they still officially come under the government’s care,” said Atiya Bose of Aangan Trust, an organisation that works in the field of child protection. There is no monitoring or social audit on the ground. This is the travesty.”

Mohammed Tarique, the assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who led the social audit of the shelter homes in Bihar, had told in July that this was the first time the state’s government had commissioned such an audit.

Money misuse

Activists pointed out that the problem is not just in the lack of money, but also misappropriation of funds, often because of a nexus between politicians and those running the shelter homes. A report by The Indian Express claimed that the Muzaffarpur home under probe, run by Brajesh Thakur, the key accused in the case, had received an annual grant of Rs 34 lakh. In all, Thakur ran 11 NGOs, which earned about Rs 2.5 crore, according to the Hindustan Times.

Kishor Palve, who runs a youth empowerment centre in Mumbai, said that funds for shelters are mainly decided based on the number of children in their care. “Each state will have their own schemes under which the state government releases funds for shelters,” he explained. “They also have norms to determine the per child cost. There is an estimation of livelihood of the children there.”

But politicians and shelter owners find a way around these rules, he said. “When I visited some shelter homes in Maharashtra, I found that on paper, there was repetition of names of children who were actually living only in one shelter. There are various forms of corruption being practiced in these places. Most of the people who run government shelters are friends or relatives of the politicians in that area.”

Vidya Reddy of Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing for Child Sexual Abuse, said that the income tax department should also be involved in registering and monitoring these homes.

“It should not be just the purview of the [state’s] social welfare department,” he said. “The shelters are often just a front and cover to line pockets. And such things don’t happen in isolation. This is happening in other parts of India as well, not just Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.”