How many people in West Bengal have ever been — or even felt the urge to be — inside a state-run juvenile home? Presumably, not many. Most of these homes operate like prisonhouses, to which ‘outsiders’ have no access. The children are kept under duress, in conditions that are sub-human, while their carers do as they like with the funds allocated for the upkeep of their wards. So, it is hardly surprising that the children’s contact with the rest of the world is fiercely regulated by those who run these homes, and common people never get to see the real picture. Although periodic visits by activists and social workers have exposed the sordid reality inside these institutions, the previous government chose to ignore even the direst revelations. But finally, with a new dispensation in power, the State seems to have woken up. Acting on an injunction by the chief minister, the minister for women, child development and social welfare, Sabitri Mitra, has prepared a report on the state of juvenile homes in West Bengal. Not only does Ms Mitra’s experience confirm every bit of the allegations made against these institutions, but it also presents an opportunity to the state government to introduce the integrated child protection scheme that has been recommended by the Centre recently.
Under the ICPS, 75 per cent of the funds will be disbursed from the Centre to the states to help them improve their juvenile justice policies. However, in this case, money alone is the not the solution to a problem that is multidimensional. Giving a child enough to eat and providing him with a hygienic place to live in are only the starting points for ensuring some of the basic rights to which every human being is entitled. The State must then factor in the other areas that directly influence the well-being of a child — healthcare, education, vocational training — and help him integrate with the rest of society. To this end, a comprehensive committee with key members of various state departments needed to be formed long ago, and it is heartening that the current government is finally considering such an option. However, beyond addressing infrastructural challenges, such a steering committee must also try to usher in a change of mindset — not only among those who work in juvenile homes, but also among members of civil society, who prefer to turn a blind eye to the miseries of these boys and girls.