I want to go back home,” whispers Hazeena as she stares out of the window. Nearby, a group of children talk among themselves in hushed tones. Their faces are filled with gloom and eyes flash with fear. They don’t want to answer any questions. Little do they know that they have kicked up a political storm in Kerala.
Neither Hazeena, 8, who hails from a nondescript village in Jharkhand’s Godda district, nor the other 167 children feel at home inside the large campus of the Noorul Huda Orphanage in Palakkad. They are tired after the long journey and fed up of answering inquisitive strangers.
The drama began on 24 May, when the Patna-Ernakulam Express screeched to a halt at the Palakkad Railway Station. A batch of 455 children under the age of 12, accompanied by 33 adults, stepped out. At the exit gate, the Railway Police detained the children and their caretakers as many were travelling without tickets.
When the Railway Police issued a fine of 1.27 lakh for ticketless travelling, the caretakers paid up. On further questioning, they spilled the beans. The children hailed from Bihar and Jharkhand and they were on their way to join the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage in Kozhikode district. Suspecting foul play, the Railway Police produced the children before the Child Welfare Committee, which sent them to local orphanages.
As the caretakers were unable to provide valid documents for transporting the children, the police registered a case of child trafficking under Section 370(5) of the Indian Penal Code. On the suspicion of smuggling minors, the police arrested four people — Moulana Faidullah, 26, and Abdul Haji Ansari, 32, both residents of Bhagalpur in Bihar, and Muhammed Alamgir, 24, of Godda and Muhammed Idrish Alam, 31, of Khola in Jharkhand. However, three other caretakers managed to escape.
The very next day, a batch of 123 children from Malda district in West Bengal arrived with four caretakers in the Thiruvananthapuram-bound Guwahati Express. The Railway Police detained and interrogated them. Later, they were produced before the Child Welfare Committee, which sent them to a different orphanage in Kozhikode.
The preliminary investigation revealed that the children were headed to the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, located at Vettathur in Malappuram district. Just like the previous batch, they had no valid documents to prove their claims.
The caretakers revealed that 64 out of the 123 children were already studying at the AMUP School in Vettathur, which is run by the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, and 59 children were going to join the orphanage in the new academic year. All the children were under the age of 14.
The new batch of 59 children who had come to join the orphanage were carrying certificates issued by their panchayat presidents and village officers and photocopies of their parents’ electoral ID cards.
Soon, the manager of the Anwarul Huda Orphanage appeared before the Child Welfare Committee with his lawyer and demanded the release of the children. Established in 1998, the Anwarul Huda Orphanage is run by the Sunni Yuvajana Sangam.
But the officials refused to budge and asked the government to conduct a detailed investigation regarding the child trafficking. On 26 May, 48 children were released after their parents produced valid certificates.
As the Railway Police invoked the anti-trafficking clause in the FIR, the orphanage managements sensed trouble. They started to put pressure on the state government with the help of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which is an ally of the Congress- led UDF government.
Initially, IUML leader and Social Welfare Minister MK Muneer tried to justify the orphanages’ moves. But Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala took a hard stand against the IUML’s bid to dilute the trafficking charges.
“I will not interfere in the investigation into the Palakkad incident,” Chennithala told TEHELKA. “I have directed the Crime Branch to probe the case and submit its report within a week. The investigation is going on and I am awaiting the report. We will initiate action based on the report.”
Angry IUML leaders hit back at his remark that “orphanages worried about poor children in Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand should do charity work in those states rather than bringing them to Kerala to fill the orphanages”.
The Kerala Police’s intelligence wing, which has been tracking similar cases, had recently submitted a report about agents who are trafficking poor children from other states to Kerala. The police suspect that a well-oiled network is canvassing parents to send their children to Kerala.
“Children belonging to poor families from other states were brought in as orphans and admitted to various orphanages run by charity organisations across Kerala,” says the intelligence report. “These orphanages are registered under the Charitable Society Act and recognised by the Board of Control of Orphanages and other Charitable Homes and are receiving a monthly grant of Rs 900 per child from the social welfare department. The orphanages are bringing children from other states to claim the grant and list them as destitute children from Kerala. The state government is losing a huge amount of money in this regard every year. So, a multi -level investigation is needed to check the menace.”
The report adds that many orphanages are also running government-aided schools and the shortage of students in those schools have forced them to cut teaching staff.
“In order to create more teaching posts, they bring children from other states and enrol them in their schools,” says the report. “As the posts are auctioned to the highest bidder, each one can fetch as much as 10 lakh for a primary school teacher and 20 lakh for a higher secondary school teacher. In aided schools, the government pays the salaries of all the staff members.”
Interestingly, TEHELKA found that both the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage and Anwarul Huda Orphanage brought children from other states for enrolment in their schools where the medium of instruction is Malayalam.
A cursory glance at the ID cards issued by the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, which also runs the AMUP School at Koduvathur in Malappuram, is enough to expose the tricks used to inflate the number of students. The cards don’t indicate in which class the student is studying.
“None of the ID cards indicate which class the student is admitted to or studying in,” says M Binu, the Railway Police inspector who detained the children. “We suspect that it has been done deliberately as the children can be put in any class where the number of students is falling short.”
In another trick, the card issued to Emmadul Haque, son of Ishank, who resides at Chanchal in West Bengal’s Malda district, has the details of his father’s residential address and cell phone number. The card issued to Injamamaul Haque, son of MD Najrul Islam, also bears the same residential address and cell phone number.
On top of that, the phone number listed on the ID card was found to be that of the Government Higher Secondary School in Vettathur. When TEHELKA contacted the school authorities on the telephone number (04933 245704), the headmistress in charge, Beena, confirmed that the number belonged to the government school.
Beena adds that though many inmates from Anwarul Huda Orphanage are studying there, no student from other states was studying in the high school classes.
The destitute certificates produced by the orphanages from Jharkhand and Bengal indicate that they were forged, as around 30 destitute certificates issued by different village officers have the same handwriting.
Initial probes show that the destitute certificates issued by the village officers are fake, says Manish Sinha, assistant director of the labour department in Jharkhand.
“Until 26 May, we had no clue that a large number of children from our state were being trafficked to orphanages in Kerala,” says Sinha. “In fact, we give free education and food for the poor students in our state. So, why were they taken to Kerala is a matter of concern. We have decided to register a case against the traffickers in Jharkhand and investigate the matter.
We have also sought the help of the Kerala government to find out how children from Jharkhand are taken to orphanages there.”
Transporting a large number of children from Jharkhand prima facie amounts to child trafficking, adds Sinha.
Along with Sinha, Jharkhand Labour Commissioner Manish Ranjan arrived in Palakkad, visited the children and held discussions with the Child Welfare Committee chairman and the district collector.
Eight parents who arrived from Jharkhand are camping at the Noorul Huda Orphanage in Palakkad along with the children. “We can’t take back our kids as my brother’s and neighbour’s kids are also here,” says Godda resident Mohammed Ismail. “We want to take them back with us. But the government is not allowing us to do so as we have no documents to prove our relationship with them.”
Mohammed Shoukath Ali, who also hails from Godda district, told TEHELKA that Zakir and Alamgir opened an office there to recruit children from poor families in order to send them to orphanages and schools in Kerala.
“They visited our village and promised that our children would get the best education facilities and good food in Kerala,” says Ali. “They showed us photographs of the orphanages and schools. We believed them and paid Rs 1,500 for each child for travel and other expenses. I borrowed money from my brother to pay him. Now, we are in utter despair. We don’t know what to do.”
A semi-literate, Ali has no knowledge about the procedures involved in sending children from Jharkhand to orphanages in Kerala. “It was Alamgir who arranged the necessary documents for the travel,” claims Ali.
According to the police, both Alamgir and Zakir had been acting as agents for Kerala orphanages for the past 10 years. They have an extensive network in Bihar and West Bengal and brought hundreds of children to Kerala.
“It was revealed that they take commission from orphanages for recruiting children from other states,” says Binu, who conducted the preliminary investigation.
Kerala Child Rights Commission chairperson Neela Gangadharan, who visited the children and parents in Palakkad, directed the government to send back all the children who came to Kerala without valid documents. She told TEHELKA that she had directed the government to take the necessary steps within three weeks so that the kids can be enrolled in schools of their respective states.
“We want the government to order a detailed probe into child trafficking,” she says. “We have also asked the social welfare department to ensure the safety of the trafficked children lodged at various orphanages.”
The Child Rights Commission has also directed the social welfare department to collect the details of children from other states staying in Kerala orphanages.
“The state government has no records about how many children from other states are studying in Kerala or how many have returned,” says A Hemachandran, additional director general of Kerala Police (intelligence wing).
According to Kerala Human Rights Commission Chairman Justice (retd) JB Koshy, the commission had directed the orphanages to provide information about the inmates who were brought from other states in 2013. “Even after repeated reminders, a majority of the orphanages are reluctant to share the information. I don’t understand why,” he says. “It is required to ensure the safety and security of the children who are in Kerala.”
But neither the police nor the social welfare department officials have information regarding how many kids from other states are staying in Kerala.
Meanwhile, IUML leaders allege that some police officials have a hidden agenda in “defaming Muslim charity organisations”. “It is unfortunate that Muslim orphanages have been accused of running a child trafficking network,” says IUML general secretary and MP ET Mohammed Basheer. “It is a motivated campaign to malign the image of Muslim charity organisations.”
Basheer says that the Mukkam Muslim Orphanage has been serving the poor and destitute for the past 58 years and even won the national award for best orphanage twice. “It has produced brilliant minds and helped thousands of destitute children to excel in their lives,” he says. “One of its former inmates got the 224th rank in the 2010 civil services examination. Now, the police have slapped a child trafficking case against such a great institution. How can we turn a blind eye to all that?
“We are not against any investigation or the slapping of fines for ticketless travel. But we can’t tolerate some police officials taking the law into their own hands.”
Basheer warns that the IUML will take steps to protect the interests of poor Muslims and charity organisations. But what he fails to understand is that the police had only been following the rules as prescribed by a gazette notification dated 22 June 2013, which issued directives for transporting children from other states to Kerala. And that notification was brought out by none other than IUML leader and Social Welfare Minister Muneer.
In its explanatory note, the gazette notification clearly states that the government has noticed that a large number of children were being transported from other states to orphanages in Kerala. “The Board of Control of Orphanages and other Charitable Homes has examined the matter in detail and found that there are no regulations to control the orphanages involved in such transportation. Hence the government has decided to amend the regulations for the board’s working,” it says.
So, who is to be blamed? The alert police officials who registered a case against the child traffickers for violating the law or the traffickers themselves, who have political protection and backing of Muslim community leaders?