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'Hard-earned' rise, but an easy fall for Jaswanti Devi

FALL FROM GRACE Rising from humble beginnings, Jaswanti scripted the way to the top echelons of power. But, behind the ascent lies the murky tale of sexual abuse of destitute who reposed faith in her

chandigarh Updated: Jun 11, 2012 11:31 IST

She virtually had the world at her feet. Access to powerful politicians and public servants, an award for women empowerment under her belt, fame and recognition, Jaswanti Devi, the woman who helmed a women and children shelter home Apna Ghar in Rohtak was a celebrated character. All that, however, is history now.

A late night swoop by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) team on Apna Ghar brought to the fore the ugly side of her persona. Accused of being an accessory to rape, assault on girls with an intent to outrage their modesty, selling minor girls for prostitution, wrongful confinement, kidnapping, criminal intimidation, forced child labour by the police, the woman is in the eye of storm.

She along with her son-in-law Jai Bhagwan, daughter Simmi, brother Jaswant Narwal, cousin Satish and two others are now behind the bars for allegedly perpetrating these crimes.

Jaswanti started with social work by floating an NGO, Bharat Vikas Sangh, way back in 1994 from a rented accommodation in Rohtak's Shri Nagar Colony. Jaswanti, who belonged to Bahu Akbarpur village of Rohtak, once worked as a helper in a social organisation in '90s. She married a widower, Prem Singh, a lab technician, in 1990. Her daughter from the wedlock Simmi is also an accused in the case.

Though she started Apna Ghar from a rented accommodation, soon she was able to purchase the shelter home property and convert it into a three-storeyed building. She got separated from her husband in 2010. Locals say she once used to sell cow dung.

Her gradual rise as a social activist thus was a cause for surprise for many. Slowly, she started wielding clout and gained access to the high and the mighty.

Her image of a social activist and crusader for destitute probably suited politicians, who roped her in for their electoral campaigns.

In March 2012, she was awarded with Indira Gandhi Mahila Shakti Puraskar, carrying Rs 1 lakh cash prize and a citation. The award was conferred on her by Haryana chief minister's wife Asha Hooda and women and child development minister Geeta Bhukkal at a state-level function organised in Jhajjar. She was also bestowed with a national award in 2011 for helping destitute in Haryana.

"Due to her proximity with high-ups, the district administration trusted her blindly. The inspection committees were probably also overawed and failed to pick any wrongdoings at the shelter home," a police official said.

Using her NGO and her influence, she also became a member of district-level child welfare committee and juvenile justice board. "It was due to the laxity of the local administration that she could sell off two newborn babies. She had become haughty due to her proximity to politicians and bureaucrats," sources said.

Jaswanti never lost an opportunity to forge links with politicians. She reportedly campaigned for a woman Congress MLA during the 2009 assembly polls. She was applauded for her social work by a powerful MP from Haryana. Officials of Apna Ghar shelter home said they wanted to complain about the beating and torture of children by Jaswanti to the administration, but could never muster enough courage due to her clout.

During interaction with the NCPCR and a committee constituted by the Punjab and Haryana high court, the child inmates at the shelter have accused Jaswanti and her relatives of making them consume alcohol, sending them out to steal at night, sexual exploitation, being paraded naked, brutal torture and assault.

Most of minor girls had complained they were made to work as labourers in the fields and sexually abused by male caretakers at Apna Ghar. The inmates have also told the high court committee that Haryana police personnel were involved in sexually abusing them. The committee was reportedly told that Jaswanti used to take young girls to influential people in Chandigarh and New Delhi.

A day after she was arrested, Jaswanti had threatened to expose the names of officials and politicians, who visited Apna Ghar regularly. "They termed my NGO an excellent organisation whenever they visited us. I would reveal the names in the court," she had said in an apparent pressure tactic.

Despite being in police custody, she maintained her smile, probably a pointer to her confidence or overconfidence.

Jaswanti's NGO Bharat Vikas Sangh got huge grants under various welfare programmes from the Central and the state government without adequate supervision.

The NGO received grants to the tune of Rs 2 crore under a dozen-odd schemes and programmes of the Centre and the Haryana government for carrying out activities for women and child welfare, running a home for destitute children and a shelter home for women in the past decade. But how Jaswanti who managed the affairs of the Rohtak-based NGO as its founder secretary kept on getting the funds without anyone batting an eyelid has raised a question mark on the monitoring mechanism of the central and state agencies releasing grants to the NGO.

The government ministries, departments and agencies, which opened their purse strings for the NGO, failed to detect anything amiss at any stage.

The NGO, established in 1994, received the bulk of the grants in the past seven years. The Central Social Welfare Board gave more than Rs 21 lakh for running a short stay home for girls and women and setting up a family counselling centre at the Rohtak jail, while the department of women and child development, government of India, provided Rs 26 lakh to the shelter home under the Swadhar Scheme for establishing crèches.

Similarly, the social justice and empowerment, school education and sports and youth departments of the state government and the Haryana State Social Welfare Advisory Board released more than Rs 50 lakh in the past seven years for running a destitute home, implementing non-formal education programmes and conducting a community sensitisation programme on female foeticide, drug abuse and alcoholism.

"The revelations and the subsequent police case against the NGO are serious. It is a collective failure of the funding agencies such as government departments and agencies, particularly the district administration, which could not detect the wrongdoings at the shelter home," a state official said.

First Published: Jun 11, 2012 11:22 IST