While transporting cattle to Kerala from neighbouring states, there are strict guidelines: all animals must be vaccinated, they should not be kept in overcrowded pens, and carriers must produce papers showing where they were loaded. But when railway authorities and the district administration rounded up 600 children from three compartments at the Palakkad station in two different incidents last month, they found that even cattle are transported in a more humane way.
Half the children were travelling without tickets. Many had starved. Aged between three and 12, they were carrying big trunks and some were barely clothed. “Ustad will tell you all,” was all they could say. They had no idea where they were being taken.
Twelve-year-old Khatoon, a resident of Murshidabad, opened up after much prodding. She had been sent away from home in the hope that she would get three meals a day and an education. Jharkhand’s Ameena had a different story to tell. Her parents had sold her and her six-year-old brother for Rs 10,000.
Read: Kerala orphanages in tatters; 450 children rescued
Authorities say this is a routine affair. There are 1,000-odd orphanages in Kerala. During investigations, some told police that they had been enrolling children from other states for the past eight years. Shakeel Ahmed, one of the agents who was arrested, told the police he had brought in 500 children in two years. “It seems in India, human lives really are cheaper than cattle,” says a district official who was part of the rescue team.
Most of the papers seized from people accompanying the children were fudged. All the 50 kids from West Bengal had the same date of birth and village officers’ affidavits showed the same handwriting. Police say at least a dozen agents are active in taking children to Kerala and Bangalore. Their modus operandi is simple — they show parents photos of these institutions and say their children will get education and care. Often, they take money from both, parents and orphanage officials. Sometimes, they give parents money in exchange for their children.
“When we rounded them up, most of the children had no idea where they were going. Tired, some of them couldn’t even walk,” says the Palakkad Child Welfare Committee chief Father Jose Paul. Many orphanages don’t keep track of missing children. Recently, six minor ragpickers detained in Kochi told the police that they had fled from an orphanage in Malappuram because they were being ill treated. No missing complaint had been filed.
Interestingly, religious sanction has resulted in more orphanages coming up In Kerala with a majority of them being Muslim and Christian institutions. Not to be outdone, the Sangh Parivar is also planning to widen its charity network. Since Kerala is socially and economically advanced, many orphanages do not get local kids.
Most of them, however, do good business by accepting generous donations from across the country and from West Asia by citing these ‘orphans’. Last year, one of the orphanages, Kozhikode-based Markauz Saquafathi Sunniyya, received Rs 2.4 crore in foreign aid and also claimed a grant of Rs 13,90,231 from the state government by concealing the foreign contribution. Most of these institutions get state social welfare ministry grants after providing false affidavits about not getting foreign assistance. Last year, these orphanages got roughly Rs 300 crore from abroad. Now, fearing a CBI inquiry, most are in a hurry to conceal records. They are also trying to dump children admitted without any records. About two weeks ago, 23 kids were found abandoned at Thrissur railway station. 18 were found at Thiruvalla.
Since the Palakkad incident, many genuinely charitable institutions have also come under the scanner. There is no denying, though, that money was being made off the children even there. If these institutions really have the children’s best interest at heart, why aren’t they working in the states that need them?
“In the north, there is ghettoisation. Muslims are generally confined to their villages. In Kerala, they rub shoulders with everyone on an equal footing. Once they go back, they can be better citizens,” says the Mukkam orphanage (one of the biggest and best run) general secretary VE Moi Haji explaining the reasoning behind bringing children from other states. Of the 1,100 inmates at the orphanage, 430 are from other states. One even got selected to the civil service in 2011.
Can this sort of initiative be termed child-trafficking? Chief Minister Oommen Chandy admitted there had been procedural lapses in the ‘recruitment’ of the children but stopped short of labelling the Palakkad case as one of trafficking. But 10 persons arrested in this connection have been booked under Section 370 (5) (child trafficking and abuse) of the Indian Penal Code. Child Line officials insist it is an outright trafficking case and want stricter measures in place. The situation has triggered a rift in the ruling coalition. The Muslim League, the second-largest partner in the UDF, is upset with the Congress for invoking strict provisions. Most of the detained children were bound for two Muslim orphanages in north Kerala. But whether it was a case of trafficking or not, there is no doubt at all that this is no way to transport little children.