Muzaffarpur shelter home: Bureaucrats aware of sexual abuse supervised rehabilitation of victims

On 23 July 2018, the Bihar police dug up the premises of a shelter home called Balika Grih in Bihar's Muzaffarpur. Apart from a horrific trail of physical and sexual exploitation, the minor residents of the shelter home also alleged murders by the owner Brajesh Thakur. The CBI concluded its investigation saying there were no murders, and the same officials who kept silent about the abuse at the shelter home monitored the victims’ resettlement. PTI
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08 February, 2020

On 11 February, a special court in Saket, in Delhi, will decide the quantum of sentences to be awarded to the 19 people convicted in the Muzaffarpur shelter-home case. The Caravan’s ongoing investigation of the case has revealed that the rehabilitation of the affected minors was overseen by bureaucrats who were reportedly aware of the sexual exploitation of over 30 minors at Balika Grih between 2013 and 2018, yet kept silent. The Caravan has identified at least two bureaucrats and three senior officials who were made part of a rehabilitation committee, which was set up by the state government under the directions of the Supreme Court. The committee held its first meeting on 28 August 2018. Among them, two bureaucrats and one senior official had been named in a report by the Bihar police on 3 July that year; and Central Bureau of Investigation raided the home of at least one of them, just a week before the committee’s first meeting. Yet none of the three made it to the agency’s chargesheet filed in December 2018. The other two were prosecution witnesses.

The revelations came to light from the minutes of the meetings of the rehabilitation committee accessed by The Caravan. The committee includes members from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, NIMHANS, a national mental-health institute, UNICEF and representatives of the Bihar government. Among the officers in the committee, the most egregious inclusions are Raj Kumar, Sunil Jha and Atul Prasad. Kumar is an officer of the Indian Administrative Services and now the director of the social-welfare directorate and the directorate of empowerment of persons with disabilities. He is third in the chain of command at the state’s social-welfare department. As The Caravan previously reported, the Bihar police had come down heavily on Kumar and marked him for further investigation since Kumar “knew a first-information report can be lodged, still never ordered an internal probe.” The police, in a supervision report with conclusions regarding further investigation of the case, had recommended that Kumar be interrogated immediately for his suspected role. Despite this, Kumar headed the first meeting of the rehabilitation committee. He did not respond to multiple calls and text messages.

Jha is a senior consultant with the State Child Protection Society—a state-level government body responsible for implementing child-protection schemes. Jha was appointed as a coordinator between government officials and the external agencies in the first meeting. He was first named in June 2018 by Ravi Kumar Raushan, one of the individuals accused in the case who served as a child protection officer. Raushan was convicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse. Raushan had told the Bihar police that “another man called Sunil Jha who too knew what was happening at the Balika Grih and yet remained quiet about it.” However, the report did not identify Jha or his designation. I tracked down Jha and asked if his name appeared in the Bihar police’s report. “I’m not aware of it,” he said. However, when I asked if the Bihar police ever questioned him, he told me, “I cannot reveal that. I’m not authorized to speak to you. Whatever investigation was there has already been done.” Jha admitted that the CBI raided his house in August 2018, but refused to share any details of his questioning. “I’m only answerable to the investigative agency and I’ve done that.” 

Prasad was a principle secretary of the Bihar government in 2018 and is now an additional chief-secretary. He chaired a rehabilitation-committee meeting held on 11 October 2018. The Bihar police report had also named Prasad and raised suspicion on his conduct. According to the report, Prasad had called for a state-level meeting on 26 May 2018, four days before the case in the incident was registered, to discuss the TISS audit report highlighting sexual abuse of children in Bihar’s 17 shelter homes, including Balika Grih. The police had questioned why Prasad did not order any immediate action “even after a state level meeting was held on the issue.” Prasad, too did not respond to calls or text messages. 

As The Caravan reported earlier, Prasad and Kumar’s decisions regarding the transfer and movement of the residents of Balika Grih contributed to the obfuscation of the number of minors involved in the investigation right from the beginning. According to Devesh Sharma, then the assistant director of the social-welfare department, who registered the first complaint against the Balika Grih, it was Kumar who ordered the transfer of all the minors at Balika Grih on 28 May, two days before the complaint was filed. However, in a media interview in January 2019, Prasad argued that the shift was carried out on his “personal order” and many officials in the department were not aware because he believed “some of our own people were involved.” 

The Supreme Court later found the shifting of minors by the social-welfare department’s officials before the registration of FIR to be suspicious and asked the CBI to investigate, in September 2018.  As reported by The Caravan, the agency never followed up on these leads.

In the first meeting of the rehabilitation committee, which Kumar headed, the decision was taken to transfer all the minors again—they were to be moved to one of four shelter homes to where they were shifted in May. It was also decided that before shifting them, a team of professionals from the social-welfare department and the medical institutions involved would visit the shelter home where the minors were to be moved and conduct an assessment of the capacity and condition of the house. Jha accompanied this team as the government’s representative to the new place on 29 August. 

Mohammad Tarique, the head of the TISS audit team and a member of the state’s rehabilitation committee, told me that during this period some of the minors had started responding well to the rehabilitation process. The Supreme Court had made the TISS team responsible for the rehabilitation plan. On 11 October, when the committee met again, Prasad chaired the meeting with Kumar and Jha in attendance. In this meeting, the committee decided to again move all the minors involved in the case. Tarique confirmed to me that eventually the minors were redistributed within three shelter homes. It should be noted here that the CBI took down witness statements of the minors between September 2018 and December 2018. During this period, the rehabilitation plan was put on hold and Tarique had no contact with the minors, on the directions of NIMHANS. 

The other two senior officials on the committee are N Naiyyer, a programme manager with the state child-protection society, and Anju Singh, a programme officer in the SCPS. Both were witnesses for the prosecution. Three weeks before the first meeting of the committee, Naiyyer told the CBI that the NGO run by Brajesh Thakur, the owner of Balika Grih, was sanctioned funds to the tune of Rs four crore by the government between 2013 and 2018. Singh also gave her statements to the CBI on two different occasions, in September and December 2018. Singh’s statements specified the chain of authority reading the monitoring of the shelter homes. 

I spoke to Aparna Bhat, an amicus curiae in the case, about the presence of tainted government bureaucrats in the rehabilitation committee. She told me she was aware of it and added, “See, once TISS took the stand, that this is the way they will do it and the state supported their stand, we thought it’s okay.” Bhat said she wanted the rehabilitation plan to be continued to be monitored by the court but TISS did not agree. “But then, ultimately, TISS is a reputed organization. So one thought it’s okay as long as children are taken care of.” 

Tarique, on his part, told me, “We were opposed to her only on one count: she wanted children to remain in the institutions and we wanted children to be allowed to go back home once their requirement in the investigation was over. This was because children were self-harming. They were cutting themselves, biting, breaking glasses, tying dupattas in the neck and so on.” Tarique told me that it was one thing to take a legal stand and another to actually visit the traumatised minors and watch them suffer. “We cannot discard the system and we cannot distrust everyone in the system.” Tarique believed that the rehabilitation of the victims was being implemented well and officially the government had agreed to all his proposals. 

Tarique’s optimism notwithstanding, a previous piece by The Caravan reported how no one—the petitioners in the case, the lawyers of the accused and even the amicus—seemed to know how many victims had been rehabilitated so far, how many minors were still under government observation and where the remaining minors were housed; and how witness statements of minors refuted the CBI’s claim that no murders took place at the shelter home. 

Parveen Amanullah, a former social-welfare minister of Bihar who resigned in 2014, told me the department is one of the most corrupt departments of the Bihar government. She believed the abuse in the shelter homes could not have continued without the knowledge of senior officials. She narrated an incident when a contractor of a shelter home, against whom she had ordered an inquiry, casually walked into her office in an attempt to influence or intimidate her.

This is the fifth report of an ongoing investigation into the Muzaffarpur shelter-home case. Read the entire series, “House of Horrors,” here.