The Supreme Court’s order transferring the trial in the Muzaffarpur shelter home case from Bihar to a court in Delhi is a welcome intervention to ensure justice for the children who were sexually exploited. The Central Bureau of Investigation had argued that the trial would not be fair if it was held in Muzaffarpur. In shifting it to a court notified under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act at Saket in Delhi, the apex court has once again demonstrated its lack of confidence in the Bihar government. It had transferred the investigation from the State police to the CBI. Later, it asked the agency to take over the probe in respect of 16 other shelter homes for children, destitute women and senior citizens. These interventions had become necessary, given the apparent apathy of the authorities in Bihar even after horrific instances of physical and sexual exploitation came to light last year. The Bihar government asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to audit the short-stay and shelter homes, run by non-governmental organisations but funded by the government. Last year, TISS came up with a damning report on the unsafe conditions in which children were staying in many shelter homes. The Muzaffarpur home was among the worst: many girls reported physical and sexual violence. More than 30 girls below 17 have been sexually assaulted.
However, the subsequent response of the State government has not inspired much confidence. Apart from some officials being suspended, and some of those involved arrested, the State government did not have much to show as stringent action. Its response came under adverse scrutiny. A Bench of the Supreme Court found that 11 FIRs mentioned only minor offences, that is, “the least serious” of the offences involved. In the Muzaffarpur case, the court took note of the clout of Brajesh Thakur, whose NGO ran the shelter home concerned. The girls in the shelter identified Chandrasekhar Verma, the husband of former Social Welfare Minister Manju Verma, as a frequent visitor. The Verma couple later surrendered to the authorities. It is disquieting and significant that the court had to order Thakur’s transfer to a prison in Patiala to prevent him from exerting his influence on the authorities in Bihar. The court is also separately monitoring the functioning of child care homes in Bihar. Meanwhile, it is high time that States bestowed sufficient attention to such institutions. A recent Central government committee report highlighted the shocking inadequacies in the facilities available at most child care institutions and homes. There is a strong case for a systematic scrutiny to be taken up on an urgent basis to address the problem.