In a one-room shack, or under a staircase, 7 children were born to a family in Bhubaneswar and ‘sold’ or ‘given away’. Their tragedy continues.
It’s a one-room shack with a tin roof. The floor of the 6 ft-by-6 ft room is muddy, the roof of the toilet is blown off and the stench of urine is strong. It is here that Shyam Chandra Rao, his wife Pramila, and his mother-in-law Kuni have been living for 10-odd years.
Ignoring the smell around her, Pramila is frying leaves in a pan to eat. “At night, we roll out a mat and sleep on the floor,” she says. “On rainy days, when the roof leaks, we sleep under the staircase of neighbours.”
It was in this tiny space, barely noticeable behind one of the many crumbling homes of the Text Book Press Colony of government employees in Bhubaneswar, that seven children were born over the last 10 years. According to the authorities, Shyam and Pramila “gave one of them away” and “sold” three. Two of their children are “missing”, while one reportedly ran away.
Since July 16, when the story of children being sold in Orissa’s capital broke, the five children whose whereabouts could be traced have been brought back to shelters in Bhubaneswar, where they now stare at an uncertain future.
A 10-year-old boy found begging in Visakhapatnam in February by the Vizag Child Welfare Committee gave authorities the first hint of the Raos’ story. Shyam and Pramila’s eldest child, who appeared to be mentally unstable, he was found to be from Orissa, and sent first to Berhampur, and from there to the CWC Khurda (Bhubaneswar).
When Priyadarshini Rath, the child counsellor at CWC Khurda, talked to the boy, he said he had run away from home early this year as his family couldn’t support him and that his father made money selling his siblings.
On July 9, Shyam allegedly negotiated his latest “sale”, of a son born to him and Pramila just 14 days earlier. The buyer couple from Jagatsinghpur, who had two daughters, offered
Rs 6,000. On a Rs 10 stamp paper, Shyam vouched, “I am handing over the infant to Ranjit and Chandini Chowdhury as I am unable to bring him up due to poverty. I would not have any claim over the male child in the future.”
The Khurda CWC and NGO Ruchika Childline learnt about the alleged sale a week later. This time the news reached the state Assembly, leading to an uproar.
As investigators finally started probing the family, they realised that what the boy had been saying might be true.
Neighbours say that when Shyam and Pramila had their first child, a boy, soon after marriage, they were very happy. But two years later, a daughter was born and they “gave her away” to an elderly widow, Annapurna Rao, living in a nearby slum. The daughter is in Class IV now. Neighbours say the Raos had two more children later. Nobody knows what happened to them. Shyam insists his wife suffered miscarriages.
Shyam is alleged to have started selling his children four years ago. The first was a daughter, 2-day-old, allegedly given to an affluent couple in Cuttack, while a son, 4-day-old, was reportedly taken by a couple from Puri one and a half years ago.
While the three children allegedly sold have been put up in an orphanage of the Missionaries of Charity in Bhubaneswar, the elder boy and girl are being kept in the CWC shelter home run by Ruchika Childline.
Shyam denies he exchanged any of his children for money. “I gave them away for their better future,” he says.
However, more than poverty, Shyam’s alcoholism may lie behind this story. A wall painter who made anything between Rs 1,500-3,000 a month, he has been barely working for years now because of his drinking.
Shyam claims he got into the habit while still a child. “I was an orphan. When I did not have enough to eat, I would drink,” he says.
Kuni used to stay in the government quarters allotted to her husband, a binder in the state government text book press, in the nearby colony. After he died around 15 years ago, Kuni had to vacate the quarters and she built a small structure with a tin roof in the nearby slum. According to her neighbours, Pramila was mentally unstable and Kuni struggled to find a groom for her. Then she met the homeless Shyam, and decided they would be a good match as they would also stay with her.
However, as Shyam’s drinking habit got worse, Kuni ended up having to support all of them. She got Rs 6,300 a month as pension for her husband and sold movie tickets in black, but most days, the family went to bed hungry.
“Shyam would beg people to give Rs 5-10 to buy a bottle of country liquor. His liquor addiction is the reason for his poverty,” says a neighbour.
Others say Pramila would also be found often drunk, lying on the road.
Now frail and unable to walk without the help of a stick, Kuni can barely contain her anger against Shyam. “He has sold even utensils to buy drinks. How long can I support them?” she says. He lashes back saying she trapped him into marrying Pramila, and had brought him only “bad luck”.
Once the police give an inquiry report, the younger Rao children will be put up for adoption while the two elder ones will go into foster care. “We are surely not sending the children home,” says CWC member Benudhar Senpati.
Shyam claims he now sincerely wants the elder daughter he gave to a neigbour to come back, and that he has “bought an anklet and dresses” for her.
Over at the CWC shelter home though, the 9-year-old only hopes to return to Annapurna, her “amma” for the past five years, and to resume school. “I miss my friends,” she says.
Annapurna, who finds it difficult to walk after a recent fall, too misses her “daughter”. “At night she would wrap her legs around my waist and talk to me about school,” she says. “Please bring her over. I can’t live without her.”
Her children all gone, her husband and mother bitter, Pramila mostly stays silent. However, these days she sometimes talks about wanting to earn money working as a house help. Then, turning to her husband, she asks: “Why did you have the children if you can’t bring them up?”