Amid allegations of human trafficking over children brought from Jharkhand and West Bengal to orphanages in Kerala, state authorities have decided to send as many as 186 back home.
A decision to return 120 children to Jharkhand, 59 to West Bengal and seven to Bihar was taken by district child welfare committees in Palakkad and Malappuram, and the first batch will be leaving on Monday.
The children were among the 466 from West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand taken into custody by the Railway Protection Force on May 24 and 25 in Palakkad, soon after they had got off trains enroute to orphanages in Kozhikode and Malappuram. Many of them were found to be returning to the orphanages after the summer vacation, but others, including the 186 above, were new children being brought by agents with the promise of enrolling them at the Mohammed Abdurahiman Memorial Orphanage at Mukkom in Kozhikode and Anwarul Huda Orphanage at Vettathoor in Malappuram.
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With mandatory documents and affidavits from parents and respective state governments as well as tickets in many cases missing, the new children had been handed over to district child welfare committees.
The state police had dubbed it an incident of human trafficking. The railway police had arrested eight persons on charges of trafficking. Of them, six were Arabic teachers (three from Bihar, two from Bengal and one from Jharkhand). Besides, the parent of a boy at the Mukkom orphanage and the uncle of another were held.
Later, the state Crime Branch had arrested two others, Mohammed Shakeel, the husband of a Jharkhand woman employed at the Mukkom orphanage, and a cook from Jharkhand working at the institute.
Palakkad Child Welfare Committee (CWC) chairman Fr Jose Paul said the children were being sent back for want of proper documents. “We will hand them over to the CWC of Godda district in Jharkhand. Officials there said their government is planning a special residential school for the children.”
In Godda district, from where 216 children went this year alone to Mukkom, the news is being seen with despondency. From three children six years ago, there are now more than 300 between 4-15 years of age from Godda at the Mukkom orphanage. Following a directive by the deputy commissioner to profile all such children, the Godda district administration has tracked down 171 of them.
The reason for children heading to distant Kozhikode is simple. The quality of education provided at Mukkom is superior to what they get at government schools or madrasas in Godda villages. Most schools lack adequate teachers, mostly due to the inability of the state government to begin recruitment.
There is some misgiving about the fact that the orphanage teaches them ways of the Barelvi sect though they are Deobandis, and that the medium of teaching is Malayalam, but that has not stemmed the flow of children to Kerala.
“My Chunni can read all the books given to children in the three schools we have in our village. I don’t care whether they are taught Barelvi; I just want to see them study for as long as possible,” says Naseema Khatun of Kaitpura, talking about her 10-year-old daughter. Four other children of the family are studying at the Kozhikode home, including two of her own.
“We plan to keep our children there. Land holdings are small here and getting smaller with each passing generation. These children will need jobs,” says Rahana Khatun, Naseema’s daughter-in-law.
“I have three boys and five girls. All eight went only to the madrasa and that too not regularly. The two Urdu schools in the village are not good enough. The residential madrasas only take in older boys. So when an agent told me that Rahim (7) could learn English and become a doctor or an engineer all for Rs 1,500 (at the orphanage), I did not hesitate,” said Mohd Kamaluddin of Sital, Mahagama block.
The “agents” who take the children fill in the admission forms, obtain parents’ signatures or thumbprints and also get members of the respective panchayat samitis to give their clearance.
Godda is also dotted with many madrasas, many of them with residential facilities for boys. However, said Mohd Alimuddin of Parasiya village in Basantrai block, “If we admit boys to the residential madrasas here, they run away and come home.”
Some parents who withdrew their children from Kerala orphanages did so only because of the Barelvi-Deoband difference, or the language barrier.
Saira Khatun (12) of Singhpur in Mahagama was at the orphanage till the last academic session. She was happy at the school, she said.
Mohd Saddam (11) of Lougain in Mahagama returned because he couldn’t follow the classes in Malayalam. “A few teachers knew Hindi, but it was always difficult. At the madrasa, the language was Urdu and Arabic, but I didn’t like it because they were teaching Barelvi,” he said. During his time there, he left the orphanage only once all year, when the orphanage took the children on a trip to the beach.
The main “agent” getting children from Godda for the Mukkom orphanage was Mohd Shakeel of Kaitpura, now under arrest in Kerala. According to his brother-in-law Mohd Iqbal, Shakeel first heard about the institution more than six years back while in Aligarh. “Someone from Kerala spoke highly of the orphanage and urged him to take poor children there. He took his son and I admitted two of mine that year. We were the first from Jharkhand.”
Iqbal has only good things to say about the institution, where his sons are in Classes VI and VII. “I don’t think they teach Barelvi there,” he added. “They have been taking ustads (teachers) from this region. They have even started cooking meals to suit Jharkhandi students. Shakeel’s wife cooks there,” said Iqbal.
Like a lot of parents, Iqbal blames the agents, especially Shakeel, for the recent controversy. “All he had to do was call Mukkom and inform them about the number of children going this year. They always sent the money for the tickets. He collected Rs 1,500 each from the parents of the new students and did not get tickets for half of them. Let him get suitable punishment,” said Iqbal. Mukkom orphanage authorities say they had warned Shakeel earlier against collecting money from parents.
In 2013, Kerala’s Board of Control of Orphanages and Other Charitable Homes directed state orphanages not to bring children from other states, following a direction from the Supreme Court.
However, for last few years, Kerala orphanages have been recruiting children from the north and Northeast for want of enough inmates from Kerala. “Neither the Social Welfare Department nor the orphanage board has a clear picture of the exact number of inmates from other states in various orphanages in Kerala,” said DIG S Sreejith, the police nodal officer for anti-human trafficking.
As many as 403 of the 1,011 children housed at the Mukkom orphanage are from out of state.
In Malappuram, the district child welfare committee has taken into custody 59 children brought from Malda district in West Bengal to the Anwarul Huda Orphanage, Vettathoor. The orphanage has 64 children in all from West Bengal.