Dial for Help

 

It was because of a NGO’s sting that a Sopore based faith-healer’s dirty world was uncovered. Shakir Mir takes a look at the NGO’s worksheet in Kashmir so far

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On March 29, last year, Srinagar office of the Childline center received a phone call from Saddar police station near Baghat. A breathless officer informed about discovery of an abandoned child, hardly 12, near the Tengpora bypass. Amid torrential rains, a team from the Childline left for police station to retrieve the boy.

Finding him deaf and speech-impaired, his interrogators were unable to locate his address. The Childline team hauled him into their car and took him around slums on the either side of bypass road, expecting that he must have been hailing from one of those. The boy responded with no gesture leaving the team in a fix. He was subsequently taken to Juvenile home near Nishat under orders from Additional Development District Commissioner (ADDC). A day later, the team advertised his missing report in media following which two claimants from Lolab Kupwara made a phone call.

“At first we were very suspicious,” team member at Childline says. “We told them what proof do you have that he belongs to you.”

The callers inquired if the child was carrying a small wooden stick in his hands – a move aimed to convince Childline that the boy was theirs.

Confirming that it was true, the team told the callers to arrive at the office. Next day, two persons were ushered into the office, in presence of the boy. Upon seeing them, a tide of happiness washed over his face. “He was identified as Altaf Ahmad Muldiyal,” a team member says. His uncle and cousin brother, who were the claimants, furnished documents proving his relation to them after which he was allowed to be taken away. “The reunion happened in ADDC’s presence,” she says.

Ever since, it made inroads into Kashmir in 2011, Childline – a special agency which metes out assistance for children facing abuse or in distress – has restored over thousand cases of minors in plight requiring immediate intervention. It has entertained, and then restored child abuse victims, runaway cases, lost children and even children accused of pelting stones. The agency has a toll free number (1098). “Whenever we get the report, we rush to see what the case is,” says Shabir, the project co-coordinator. Last week, the NGO shot to fame after unmasking a Sopore-based “faith healer” accused of sexually abusing the minors. Acting on a tip-off, the organization sent a counselor who masqueraded as a devotee. Gathering key inputs – including the body language of the two minors at his place suggesting that they might well have been abused – the Childline along with J&K police raided his premises, arresting the accused.

The origins of Childline dates back to 1996 when it was launched as a pilot project under the aegis of Professor Jeroo Bilmoria, a social scientist who taught at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. The agency envisioned keeping available a hotline number catering 24X7 to the children who are in dire need of assistance. Hence, the words child and helpline multiplied to produce the portmanteau: Childline.

Overwhelmed by its path-breaking success, the Ministry of Women and Child Development decided to lend support to the initiative in 1997. Since then, it has come a long way; spreading its offshoots practically into all Indian states.

On March 19, 2011, Childline Srinagar was flagged. It is supervised by HELP Foundation, an NGO. Since its inception, it has entertained up to 1055 cases. The agency operates under a framework stipulating it to carry out operations in close coordination with police under Juvenile Justice Act 1997. It also extends legal assistance in many cases.

Before it could make any meaningful intervention, Childline takes children to the Juvenile Welfare Board. In case need arises, to put up children for a night or two, the agency lodges them in juvenile homes located at Ishbar near Nishat. “There is Nari Niketan for girls and Bal Ashram for boys,” Shabir says. “In many cases, police brings those children to us. We are facilitating agency between, linking society and administration.”

In a broader prism, Childline works for children under two categories: Children in conflict with law, and children in need of care and protection.

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In the former case, they are often pitted against police who rigorously pursue cases against the minors involved in stone pelting. Amendments made in the Juvenile Act in 2013 notwithstanding, the police, Shabir says, still metes out treatment in accordance with the act of 1997, its controversial predecessor where minors are children below 16. “That’s because the amendments are not yet fully implemented,” he says.

“They (police) tell us why Childline doesn’t intervene when they are pelting stones,” he recalls them saying. “And now when we are arresting them, you are telling us to give them a free hand?”

Normally, the Childline operates indispensably along with police. Problem only arises when the agency is supposed to intervene in matters of ‘children in conflict with law’ where it is difficult to do the needful.

But Shabir concedes that police operates dutifully when it comes to other cases. Police, he says, is apprehensive about the repetition of 2010 unrest. “We cannot operate without the police’s help,” he says. “It works in favour of life and security and we, for welfare. Here, life and security and welfare gets clashed in case of which former is more important.”

The occasional differences with police apart, Childline has had a robust tenure in Srinagar. Though its jurisdiction is restricted to just Srinagar, yet it registers cases emanating from other districts as well. It also extends help for children from other states that lose their way in Kashmir and happen to come in its contact.

For instance, last year, it restored 13-year-old Faisal (name-changed) who was trafficked into Kashmir from Bihar by his distant relative. An orphan, Faisal was being looked after by his uncle who handed over his reins to the relative in question. Faisal was then brought to Kashmir and forced to work as a child labour. One night, his relative hurled few spiteful words at him. A dejected Faisal took offense and left in a huff. Unable to buy himself a train ticket, he showed up at police station Nowgam and presented concocted stories hoping that cops – believing that he was lost case – would take him home. “But instead they contacted us,” says Shabir. “We took the boy to Bal Ashram where he stayed for about a month.”

Interestingly, few days later, Nowhatta police station claimed that someone had filed a missing report about a child. It turned out that the child was Faisal.

His relative have filed an FIR in an attempt to absolve himself and then fled. Police along with Childline traced out Faisal’s address. With the help of Childline Bihar, the boy was handed over to his uncle but not before getting him to write an affidavit pledging that he won’t abandon him again.

Similarly, on July 21, 2015, Childline received a phone call from police station Humhama notifying the agency about a 12-year-old missing girl (name withheld). “She was normal but wasn’t giving proper address details to police,” a team member recalls.

She gave police incoherent accounts of her missing story. Unable to decide what to do with the girl, Childline under the orders from ADDC was put at Nari Niketan. “We told her that she will have to stay here for the rest of her life,” says the team member, who intended to scare her into spilling out the truth.

The formula did work and the girl coughed out her address. “She was from Chattergam in Budgam district,” team member says. Apparently, her aunt had been involved in flesh-trade. She was planning to incorporate the girl into the “business”. Some days later, Childline established contact with her family and called them before the ADDC. “They admitted that the girl was theirs and her aunty had taken her,” team-member says. After having her family sign a document that they would never abandon her, they were given the custody of the girl.

Childline has two offices in Kashmir division. Another one located in South Kashmir was established recently. It is managed by Humanity Welfare Organisation.

“We are always trying to motivate our staff to penetrate deeper into the society,” Shabir says. “Ultimately, we are aiming for 90 percent penetration.”

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