So, are we spending 12 paise per child per day?
Not really. The vast majority of the 35 million kids get zero paise per day.
About 10 percent, i.e., about 36,500 children are lucky enough to find their way into various facilities like juvenile institutions, homes, shelters, or other state-supported infrastructure. There is zero guarantee that they will be safe and happy here. But their chances of suvival, of not being isolated, and not being physically, sexually or economically abused are higher, as compared to their chances on the streets.
Those who don't live in families or in state-run facilities end up in private institutions where, thanks to a poor monitoring mechanism, they sometimes find themselves abused.
Something like this happened at the Swami Balnath Ashram in Ghaziabad. Happened to dozens of girls over decades, while nobody heard a whisper of protest, until some foreign altruists smelt a rat and called in local activists, who called in the media, who called the national commission for women, who called the cops, who raided the place.
I first heard of the ashram through Project Why, and decided to check out the place.
Ghaziabad is less than an hour's drive out of Delhi, and Balnath Ashram was one of the few places (perhaps the only one) where orphans or abandoned girl-children - especially those with disabilities - could be taken.
We (me and a collegue) visited the ashram, which has been running since 1979, without prior intimation.
A makeshift school was in progress, with three teachers leading a jumbled chorus of voices crying out 'ka-ba-kab...ta-ba-tab'.
A large signboard proclaimed that a special school for children with disabilities existed, but there was no teacher in sight. There used to be one but was missing at the moment. Balnath claimed she was sick for 15 days. The other teachers said that she has been gone so long that they don't even remember her name.
There was one male caretaker, but no female attendant or teacher living within the ashram although nearly all the 70-odd inmates were girls.
The girls with disabilities (and there were only girls there) were isolated and uncared for. They seemed to live in a separate wing of the building, and though Balnath denied their being isolated from the other girls, it was evident that the other girls were given rooms elsewhere.
Some of them were severely malnourished but it was hard to say whether that is neglect or whether that is because they have recently arrived and they came from poor homes. Some girls had injuries and scars, which they refused to explain. A few seemed very sick and in urgent need of medical attention. Balnath, the saffron-clad swami, claimed that one girl had been in and out of hospital. That she'd needed a saline drip. To me, she looked very much like she still needed to be in hospital and still needed a saline drip. Probably a lot more.
The older ones managed the kitchen themselves, and bathed the little ones. There are piles of clothes and mattresses lying locked up in store-rooms. However, many of the girls seem to be sleeping on bare, hard beds, without mattresses.
Without being asked a question, Balnath had complained, "These girls are forming a non-cooperation movement against me. They keep saying they're not taken care of. I'm sick of them."
The girls did not say a word against him. Not to me. But after a few hours there, some of them had begun to clutch at my hands, my kurta. Some wanted to leave right away. One howled, calling for her mummy.
This ashram once used to be a co-gendered one. There were both boys and girls. Balnath claimed he got rid of the boys (transferred them to another similar home in another location) because "the boys were leading the girls into bad activities... introducing them to strangers outside".
The girls said they missed the boys they'd grown up with. They were like their brothers.
The school running inside the premises was not recognized and was only upto class 8; the only option for taking the secondary exam was to do so privately. However, so far, none of the girls had cleared this exam. Not since 1979. No vocational courses were taught either. Balnath claimed that the girls were simply not interested, and that they did learn something, anyway: bhajans and harmonium practise.
"We get them married off, as soon as they turn 18, to poor boys from Haryana and Punjab. They only are in a hurry to be married."
Incidentally, he admitted that there was a bit of a conflict situation. A local muslim woman had been claiming that her daughter was being held in that ashram and had been fighting in court to get her back. Balnath refused to let the child go. Because of "legal complications... these muslims are not allowed to adopt Hindu children, and what if this baby is a Hindu?"
Although he had been running the ashram since 1979, he claimed to have received state funding only once. "Rs 40-45,000 from the UP government. But now, we get private donations. There is so much food and material that there is no need for government money."
The Balnath Ashram is not a special home or a shelter in the legal sense. Balnath admitted that he did not have a licence to run an orphanage; it is simply a registered charity that doubles up as a dump for unwanted children. The result is that it does not show up in government records as a children's shelter or home, and is not subject to routine inspections by the authorities.
On the same visit, we also paid a visit to the Ghaziabad probation office, and found that there was no government sanctioned child institution or shelter in the block. Not one.
The probation officer himself was unavailable (doing election duty because, clearly, some by-election or the other was more important than protecting children in non-existent shelters) but one of the clerks agreed to speak to us, anonmously, of course. He said that the closest children's home was the Rajkiya Bal Griha in Meerut.
Another interesting fact. There is only one inspector for one mandal, who sits at Meerut. The mandal includes Ghaziabad, Muzzafarnagar, Saharanpur, Rampur, Moradabad, Bijnaur and Meerut districts.
Seven districts. One inspector.
"In 2004, the UP government cancelled children's homes in all except 17 districts. It is true that this state order violated the Juvenile Justice (care and protection of children) Act, 2000. It is imperative that orphans or abandoned children be produced before a juvenile justice board. If the local police find them, they have to send them to Meerut. Else, they are just left at the Balnath Ashram. We know it doesn't have a license, but where's the option?"
When I asked why they didn't intervene, he said, "What can we do if we don't have an alternative? Take them out of the ashram, but take them where?"
For children with disabilities this is true many times over. Where does one take them?
While it is difficult to look after children with disabilities, it is a responsibility that, once assumed, must be discharged with persistence and grace. Unfortunately, there are few homes with special facilities. Besides, when it comes to abuse, it is hard to ascertain levels of ability, activists say, since traumatized children often refuse to respond, or display behavioural problems until they can be counselled.
Inu Annie Stephen, a strategy alliance coordinator for the Childline India Foundation, knows that the resource crunch is frustrating and limiting, especially when it comes to special services attuned to needs.
"One of the major challenges is differently abled children. Even government homes sometimes refuse to keep them. We have emergency services and organisations like the Missionaries of Charity, but even NGOs get fed up of our requests. The government is supposed to take in all kinds of children with whatever level of ability, but there are no special homes and there are no skilled staff to cater to special children."
Project Why is one of the few organisations that does have a special section. The founder, Anouradha Bakshi believes that families must be made to assume primary responsibility for children, including those with special needs. Her daughter, Shamika works as a special educator and has helped bathe and groom her students, but she also has to argue with parents' on the child's behalf, since families often send a special child to school dirtier than other siblings. Sometimes, no lunch is given, or rotten leftovers are set aside.
But teachers like Bakshi are a rarity. In places like the Balnath Ashram, the teachers were probably silent witnesses to the misery and squalor of girls who may or may not have been disabled. May or may not have been abused.
When activists began to prod and probe the ashram, they tracked down one of the women who had once lived on the premises. She admitted to one of the social workers that she suspected some of the girls were being abuses. But she did not call the cops. She did not blow the whistle. She did not insist that Balnath (or his male cohorts) not have access to the girls' rooms after a certain time of day. She did not insist that the girls be taught something that might make them independent. She simply lived there until matters soured between her and her husband (who worked there), and then she upped and left.
I don't know what will happen to the girls. I don't know where they are and I don't know if, when they turn 18, they will simply be turned out of the government-run shelter - without a clue about how they can make a living, without being taught the most rudimentary laws under which they can seek protection, without the tools of citizenry and dignity.