AT LAST count, the Kashmir Valley had 2.14 lakh orphans. That disturbing statistic is proving to be a boon for those running orphanages, which are hellholes for the children but a money-making machine for one-man charity outfits. Orphanages are a 120 crore business, according to a conservative estimate, and a bulk of that is unregulated.
Shaista was just one year old when her father, a militant, was shot dead by security forces in 2009. Her mother Habla Begum, who already had a three-year-old daughter, found it difficult to raise both children. So, the Bandipora resident sent Shaista to an orphanage in Srinagar, 54 km away.
Now, Shaista lives at Ansar-ul- Masakeen, a decrepit two-room orphanage at Kanipora, a low-income neighbourhood on the outskirts of Srinagar. Nearly a dozen girls, the eldest of them aged 12, live in a 17ftx15ft hall. The walls are plastered with mud. In winter, the girls spend their entire time in the hall, sleeping, studying and playing under the supervision of two women who cook and serve for them.
Each girl has a tragic story to tell — fathers either shot dead or missing, survived by homeless, poverty-stricken mothers and siblings. Sabreena, Safeena, Afroza, Rukhsana and Zareefa have all come from families reeling in abject poverty brought upon them by the prevailing conflict.
Children aged between 3 and 10 are being brought up in hundreds of orphanages across the Valley. Most of them are like Ansar-ul-Masakeen, which is working independently of any government monitoring or control. The city of Srinagar itself has at least 21 such institutions.
Located at Nowgam in Srinagar is the Al Falah Yateem Trust, another unregistered orphanage, where 16 boys reside in two halls with an adjacent kitchen on the second storey of a derelict building. Mudasir Ahmad was brought to the orphanage from Kulgam town in south Kashmir when he was five. His mother married again after his father, a militant, was killed in a gunbattle with the security forces. Unable to take care of him, his grandparents brought him to the orphanage. “I want to go back to my mother. I miss her,” says Mudasir. He often suffers from stomach cramps for which he is occasionally treated at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital.
A similar orphanage in downtown Srinagar is run by the Alamdar Yateem Trust, which is housed in an old decrepit building that belongs to Prem Nath Gaasi, a Kashmiri Pandit. The trust looks after around 15 children, most of whom hail from remote areas of north and south Kashmir.
Only 27 orphanages are registered with the Jammu & Kashmir Social Welfare Department. According to officials, the department directly runs 17 orphanages — 11 Bal Niketans and six Nari Niketans — where it provides lodging, boarding and education to the homeless children.
“The government has mandated us to register private orphanages and monitor their functioning. But we only register those that have adequate facilities. Only they become eligible for our grants,” says Social Welfare Director Hilal Ahmad.
According to Save The Children, an NGO, there are many orphanages that operate outside government control. As per its 2009 study, the NGO estimates the number of orphans in Kashmir at 2.14 lakh, with only 20,000 finding shelter in orphanages. More than half of them are in the 7-16 age group. The number is confirmed by a survey conducted by the Kashmir University’s sociology department, which pegs the number of widows at 32,000. However, a 2007-08 survey conducted by the state government has put the figure at 26,000, a number that civil society groups contest.
Qurat-ul-Ain Masoodi, who follows the work of orphanages, says most of them operate from one- or two-room hovels. “In some cases, people just put up a signboard of an orphanage in front of a shop and collect funds in its name, an indication that the so-called orphan care is pursued as a business,” says Masoodi, who runs Asha, an NGO. “There are a few trusts that are doing good work but many have forayed into the business just to mint money.”
A case in point is Al Noor, a purported orphanage at Hamdania Colony in Srinagar, which is run from a room on the second storey of a shopping complex. The room remains locked. But Al Noor chairman Shabir Ahmad Rather says he offers financial help to the families of 42 orphans. “We pay for their school fees and books,” he says. “Around 80 percent of the orphans are affected by the militancy.”
After Masoodi filed a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) last year, the government shut down Shah-i-Jeelan, an orphanage in downtown Srinagar. In her complaint, Masoodi had chronicled the abuse faced by the children at the hands of the management. SHRC officials investigated and verified the incidents. The SHRC ordered the Social Welfare director to seal the orphanage and rehabilitate the children in the department’s charitable institutions. The commission also directed the government to survey all the unregistered orphanages in the Valley.
“Even 10 months after the order, the government has little to show by way of any data,” says Masoodi, who is writing a book on the state of the Valley’s orphanages. “What is more, Shah-i-Jeelan has reopened at a different location.”
Community donations are the most visible source of orphanage funding. A few long-running, well-established institutions are financed by Kashmiris living abroad or international NGOs. Baitul Hilal is one such institution located at Jawahar Nagar in Srinagar. The orphanage has better infrastructure and houses around 50 children who are generally taught in private schools.
There are other Srinagar-based orphanages like Yateem Khana and Yateem Trust, the last of which has been in operation for the past 41 years. They are among the few charitable institutions that have adequate infrastructure. On their websites, they appeal for generous public donations.
Yateem Trust patron Zahoor Ahmad Tak admits that the charity scene is getting murky in the Valley. “The situation is rife with fake trusts and NGOs. They operate in a policy vacuum on the rehabilitation of orphans and widows,” says Tak, who runs a chain of orphanages.
According to experts, what is compounding the situation is that the children at unregistered orphanages receive not only little personal attention but also poor education. They are sent to local government schools that rank lowest on academic performance and are taught the Quran and Hadith at the orphanages.
A substantial number of orphans have also been sent by their families to madrasas that provide free lodging and boarding and impart exclusively religious education. “We have studied that around 80 percent of the orphans drop out of school after their matriculation. That is when they are sent back to their families,” reveals Tak.
THE TREND of setting up orphanages began in Kashmir in the mid-1990s, five years into the armed separatist campaign. This is when orphanages sprouted across the Valley to cater to the rising number of orphans as a result of the killings. Now in the 24th year of violence, the first generation of orphans has already left the orphanages.
“But there is no data on what happened to them. We don’t know whether the orphanage upbringing made any redeeming difference to their lives,” says clinical psychologist Dr Muzaffar Khan. He did a psychoanalytic study of inmates at Shehjar, an orphanage on the outskirts of Srinagar and found that they had developed serious psychological issues. “These children have seen the worst of Kashmir’s turbulence,” says Dr Khan. “They represent the pain of Kashmir. That is why they harbour a lot of anger towards society, which we need to deal with empathetically.”
In an exercise conducted by Masoodi where orphanage inmates were persuaded to write about their experiences, some of them revealed the shades of this anger. Imran Amin Naik, 16, of Kokernag town in south Kashmir, wrote about how his father was shot dead by the army when they discovered that a militant was holed up in their house. “My father didn’t know that the militant was there. He was outside. But the army still killed him,” he wrote. Similarly, Masarat Rasool, 16, of Budgam town, talks about the killing of his father Ghulam Rasool Rather, a police constable, by militants. “My father passed away in 2002. He was escorting prisoners when the militants attacked the vehicle and killed him.”
The indiscriminate growth of orphanages in the Valley is making many people uneasy. Dr Rauf Malik, who helped set up Baitul Hilal orphanage in 2000 and subsequently grew disillusioned with the idea, says establishing an orphanage was easier in the Valley than building a school.
“The Juvenile Justice Act has no clause on orphanages. Orphanages are registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1961, under which simple registration certificates are obtained,” says Dr Malik, who now runs Koshish, a child rights NGO funded by Child Rights & You, a non-profit. “But that never entitles people to run these institutions. No Act is in place to govern the functioning of these institutions and there is no legal authority as well.”
Dr Malik thinks a large number of unregistered orphanages are a source of livelihood for their owners. “There are orphanages that house 20 children but they recruit a staff of 6-7 people, most of them their kith and kin. And even in some large organisations in the Valley, it is a big bureaucratic world that has taken over,” says Dr Malik who filed a PIL in the J&K High Court in 2006 to stay the NGOs from taking children from the Valley to orphanages outside the state. “We could have spent less and made a more redeeming difference to the lot of orphans if we financed their education and welfare in their own homes.”
But despite the scale of tragedy and its fallout on a large section of the population, orphans live in a sterile, insulated world. Their condition gets little government attention and never becomes a subject of political discourse, both in the mainstream and separatist quarters. Separatists, who otherwise call themselves “custodians of the cause of the people who laid down their lives in the past two decades”, have generally been indifferent to the welfare of their children and widows.
However, some Hurriyat leaders claim that the government stonewalls their bid to offer help. “In the 1990s, we made a serious effort to institutionalise the distribution of relief but the government aborted it,” says Hurriyat (G) spokesman Ayaz Akber, adding that the separatists are now keeping a deliberate distance from the orphanages fearing that their attention will politicise the ongoing humanitarian effort.
On the other hand, NGOs wrestle hard to keep ideological distance in the Valley’s strict political binary and stay focussed on the job. “Our job is to selflessly help the orphans and widows,” says Tak. “And the only way it can be done honestly is by ridding ourselves of all political and ideological motivations and commitments.”