Only seventeen days after J&K government hired a child protection expert to calibrate its response to one of its most serious challenges in Kashmir, he was removed without giving any reason.
Hilal Bhat had left his job at UNICEF after J&K Government approached him to head its Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS). The government move has upset Social Welfare Minister Sajad Lone, who is in the cabinet in BJP’s quota and has brought new strain in the coalition. “I have no idea. All I know is that it took me months to convince him (Bhat) to leave UNICEF and work for our government at least for 18 months,’’ Lone told The Indian Express. “I was hoping that he would roll out ICPS. And given that he is highly experienced in child rights and protection, it will help us”. Lone said that he understood the importance of addressing the issues linked to children, especially a well organized government effort for their protection. “That’s why we had brought a professional as Mission Director for this project. Although the law is there since 1998, nothing has been done till now. We are in the process of setting up juvenile justice system and organize programmes specifically aimed at children. The government is committed to establish a vibrant child rights regime in the State”.
When contacted Bhat said: “I am surprised. The State is facing a major challenge vis-a-vis our child. This is why I left a job at UNICEF. I wanted to work here and help develop a system for protection and rights of the children”. A Kashmir Administrative Service officer replaced Bhat. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told The Indian Express that she has been apprised of the matter. “We will sort this out soon,” she said.
In fact, the work on child rights and protection has especially become a top priority because of the current situation in Kashmir. According to J&K Health department’s data, 1248 children below the age of 15 years were among 9010 people who were injured in the first four months of the government crackdown to quell the massive protests that were triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in a joint operation of J&K police and army in South Kashmir on July 8 last year.
This official date had been collected from various valley hospitals. Although majority of the injured were young, the date revealed that 243 children below the age of 12 years and 1005 children between the age of 12 and 15 years were injured. Many among the people who were blinded or partially blinded by pellets too are below 18. In fact, the entire Kashmir simmered with anger when the picture of a five-year-old boy blinded in one eye by a pellet went viral on social media last year.
The treatment of juveniles has especially been apathetic with children regularly hauled up with adults in police lock ups because the State has failed to implement its own Juvenile Justice Act. The state of less than half a dozen juvenile homes is especially bad. After a PIL was filed, the J&K High Court monitors the implementation of the Act. In May 2015, the Court had called upon the J&K government to ‘wake up from the deep slumber at least in the interest of children for whose benefit the Act has been legalized by the State Legislature”.
Earlier this year, the J&K government also turned a jail in Pulwama in South Kashmir exclusively for juveniles. A senior official of J&K government told The Indian Express that “there was pressure from within the government to replace Bhat” especially because the government decision to “hire professionals from open market to implement certain key projects has come under serious criticism”.
“There are around 400 people who would be recruited to implement this project and politicians want their own people to be absorbed. This guy is not from within the system and he wasn’t listening to them. That is the underlying reason,’’ the official said. “The bureaucrats too were upset with this practice. The local administrative service people too had been lobbying to remove these professionals. And now they have succeeded”.
No one in the administration was ready to comment. Another senior official said that he has already spoken to Social Welfare Minister (Sajjad Lone). “We know this is a wrong decision and are trying to set it right. The financial concurrence for the post of Mission Director is explicitly subject to the condition that he will be a domain expert taken from open market”.
A Social Welfare ministry official said that this was the first major effort to put systems in place for child protection and rights in the State. “The government knows what has been happening on the streets of the valley. A major chunk of the problem we face today is by people who are below 18. And there are hurdles for those who are trying to help the children,’’ he said. “Are we fighting for rights of Babu or rights of children?” he asked.