The arrest of the district child protection officers (DCPO) of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri along with a member of Darjeeling district Child Welfare Committee (CWC), on charges of involvement in the recently-busted child trafficking racket, has revealed how a couple championing child rights increased their clout in the two neighbouring districts of north Bengal over the past several years to tweak with the child protection norms.
While Mrinal Ghosh, the DCPO Darjeeling, and Debashis Chandra, a member of CWC for the district, were arrested on March 3, Ghosh’s wife Sashmita, the DCPO Jalpaiguri, was arrested on March 6.
In total seven persons have been arrested so far in connection with the racket, including three persons associated with the North Bengal People’s Development Centre (NBPDC), an NGO based in Jalpaiguri.
“Mrinal Ghosh worked as both the chairperson of CWC and the DCPO in Darjeeling during the second half of 2013 and first half of 2014. Moreover, the existing CWC (tenure 2015-2018) has two members who are employees of CONC’RN, an NGO on which he had control,” a former member of Darjeeling district CWC told HT on condition of anonymity.
Both Mrinal and Sashmita are senior office bearers of CONC’RN.
The implications are serious. While the DCPO is the nodal administrative officer of a district, the CWC is the custodian of a guardian-less child and wields the same powers as a metropolitan magistrate.
According to the Juvenile Justice Act, “CWC is the final authority to dispose off cases for the care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of children...” The adoption process has to take place in presence of DCPO and CWC member.
“The very fact that both the crucial positions were held by the same person removed all checks and balances,” said a Siliguri-based child rights activist.
“The situation became murkier since both the members of CWC (2015-2018 tenure) helped in continuation of the same nexus. The current CWC of Darjeeling must be immediately scrapped,” said Basanti Banerjee, former member, Darjeeling CWC.
That’s not all. Mrinal Ghosh was the only candidate when he applied for the post of DCPO of Darjeeling in 2012. AT that time he was also the CWC chairman of the same district.
On April 3, 2012, Darjeeling NGO Network sent a letter to Krishna Tirath, former union minister for women and child development, alerting her about the “non-inclusive and non-transparent manner” of the selection process. In protest, Anuja Mukhia (Ghalay), a member on the selection committee (who was also a CWC member) withdrew from the interview panel for selection of DCPO and sent a letter on April 4, 2012 to the district social welfare officer.
But the interview went on without her and Ghosh was selected. Child rights activists told HT that they demanded that the position should have been advertised in local language newspapers.
Right now, of the five members of Darjeeling CWC, Chandra, a visiting doctor at NBPDC, was a close friend of Ghosh, while Tapas Karmakar and Mohan Lal Jha are employees are CONC’RN. As a result, when a new CWC was formed in Darjeeling in 2015, Ghosh had almost unchallenged authority as three its five members were his close aides.
Both Karmakar and Jha denied that Mrinal Ghosh had any influence in their selection as CWC members. But they admitted that CID sleuths have already quizzed them. Both declined further comments as the case is being investigated.
Speaking to HT on condition of anonymity, several former members of the CWCs in Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri recalled how the Ghosh couple kept increasing their clout in all three committees to look after children up to the age of 18 – the district child protection unit (DCPU), the CWC and the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB).
Mrinal Ghosh became a member of the Darjeeling CWC in 2008 and acted as the de-facto head since 2009 after the chairperson resigned. His wife was a member of JJB Darjeeling at that time. The NGO CONC’RN they were associated with work with children around railway stations.
“Strangely, meetings of Darjeeling CWC were held in Jalpaiguri district in the office of CONC’RN,” a former member of Jalpaiguri district CWC told HT.
“While the writ of the Ghosh couple ran in Darjeeling, the Jalpaiguri CWC was not in their control. Sashmita Ghosh had to answer several queries from CWC members and the racket was busted in this district,” a former CWC member told HT.
In 2016, Ghosh was facilitated by the state government for his role in ‘child welfare’.