One of the stories that officers at the Wagle Estate police station in Thane (west) love recounting is that of an inconsolable five-year-old boy who lost his way and was brought to the police station a month ago by a passer-by. The boy from Kamgar Colony was kept in the ‘Muskan’ room, a 150 sqft room in the police station premises set up last year to make a child-friendly corner. “He was crying because he could not remember his address. But soon, he became curious about the jigsaw puzzle lying around. A few hours later, when the worried parents came to the police station looking for him, he was engrossed in the puzzle. He refused to go back with them,” says Manoj Surve, a police naik attached to the Wagle Estate police station.
“Muskan” was inaugurated by the Thane police last year. Buoyed by its success over the past year, the Maharashtra police now plans to have “children corners” in eight other police stations across the state. Special inspector general Krishna Prakash says, “These corners may not be as big as the Muskan centre due to space constraints but efforts will be made to make a certain section of the police station child-friendly. Normally children, especially those who have been victim of sexual offences, get intimidated by the police station. A more comfortable environment may help them open up more easily,” he says. Of the 28 cases involving children that came to the Thane police station last year, 10 pertained to sexual offences.
In the police station premises at the end of a quiet leafy lane, one room stands out. On its walls are painted cartoon characters from Enid Blyton’s Noddy series. In the courtyard, swings and slides are meant to coax little ones into play. Inside, too, the walls of the around 150 sq ft room have cartoons, from Tom and Jerry to Mowgli to Chhota Bheem and Doraemon, painted across. A bookshelf holds Harry Potter and Famous Five books, jigsaw puzzles and games.
Ravikant Malekar, who was the senior inspector at Wagle Estate police station when the room was set up, said, “Since we had space, we created a separate room for the children. Our then joint commissioner of police Ashutosh Dumbare suggested we have cartoon characters on the walls. Some staff members suggested we keep books and games,” Malekar said.
Surve said that after making these changes they realised that children may still be intimidated by the police uniform. “So we have arranged for two women cops, who are in plainclothes, to interact with the children at the Muskan centre. They are encouraged to play first, become comfortable after which they open up,” Surve said.
That helped the police recently in a case of a 10-year-old girl, who had been sexually assaulted by a relative. A family member of the girl said, “She spend some time playing in the Muskaan room after which she found it easier to speak about the incident.” Dr Shubhangi Parker, professor and psychiatry department head, KEM hospital, said, “After the trauma of abuse, having to face unknown people can be daunting. Games help children feel they are in control of the situation and also help them express various feelings like anger. It would definitely help victims to cope better,” she said.
Apart from complainants, the police station also takes care of the cops working there. Right ahead of the Muskan centre is a well-pruned garden. “Normally police stations can be stressful places with negative energy. People come here fighting, shouting on top of their voices or crying if they have been victims of a crime. Handling them can be quite stressful. Hence, we have a garden, where police officers come to take 10-15 minutes breaks. Some policemen staying nearby also get their children to the garden or kids from surrounding areas come to play,” Surve said. That’s not all. Whenever someone from the police station goes to his/her village, they get different varieties of plants that are then grown in the garden. “As of now we have 27 varieties of plants,” said Surve.