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Neighbours pipped in kid rescue

- Jharkhand quick to react to emergency, slow to act on child safeguards

Ranchi, June 8: Around 120 minority children from some of Godda’s poorest families in Jharkhand, who will board a train back home from Kerala tomorrow, have state social welfare minister Annapurna Devi to thank for fast-tracking the rescue mission within hours from when the news broke on May 25.

Poor families in Godda had packed off the children to Kerala via agents, lured by the promise of free food, lodging and education in orphanages, this philanthropy now muddied by allegations of trafficking.

Of the 589 children detained at Kerala’s Palakkad on their way to orphanages, 167 were from Jharkhand, while the rest were from Bihar and Bengal. Jharkhand’s children were bound for Mukkam Muslim Orphanage in Kozhikode, chaired by Syed Hyederali Shihab Thangal of the Indian Union Muslim League, an ally of the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front government in Kerala.

While Kerala’s internal political compulsions are allegedly giving chief minister Oommen Chandy sleepless nights, Jharkhand has been the first to act among the three ‘victim’ states, bridging the 2,402km distance between Godda and Palakkad with a high-level rescue mission to officially bring 120 of 167 children home.

Prodded by Annapurna, a top RJD leader and a Lalu Prasad favourite, a Jharkhand team left for Kerala on May 30 to immediately start identifying children, a job made difficult given that most minors had no documents but some did, while parents of others staked claim on their wards. The numbers of how many children would finally board the official train kept reducing from 129 to 123 to finally 120 as parents kept coming to take their wards.

Still, Palakkad district collector K. Ramachandran singled out Team Jharkhand. “They came promptly and worked very hard to draw up different kinds of lists of the kids,” he said, adding Bihar and Bengal seemed cold to the developments.

“Teams from Bihar and Bengal came only on June 5. Only two officials came from Bengal, while the Bihar squad had three,” he added.

Apparently, there were 123 children from Bengal, with many from Malda district, but speculation is rife that many might actually be from Bangladesh across the border.

“Teams from Bihar and Bengal didn’t appear very enthusiastic over the issue,” Ramachandran summed up.

Annapurna, speaking to The Telegraph this morning, said as chief minister Hemant Soren was away on a family vacation that time, she asked officiating chief secretary Sajal Chakraborty to swing into action on May 26, who then lined up a team of high-level bureaucrats to mull rescue.

At their behest, social welfare director Puja Singhal called up Kerala officials on May 27. A fast-track rescue team, with labour commissioner Manish Ranjan and State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) senior member Sanjay Mishra, left the state for Kerala on May 30.

“It was my moral responsibility to find out what actually happened in this case and to bring back the children,” Annapurna said. “I know it is an interstate issue and requires high-level interrogation.”

Jharkhand’s eight-member team comprised labour commissioner Manish Ranjan, SCPCR member Sanjay Mishra, labour department officials Manish Sinha, Vineet Kumar Singh, Sunil Kumar, P.K. Verma and Seema Sharma, as well as a doctor, Vinod Kumar.

“Manish (Ranjan) was categorically briefed to make full inquiries into the matter so that we did not have to depend on Kerala counterparts to know the hows and whys,” the officiating CS said.

The children, who went to Kerala in crammed sleeper coaches, will return under full media glare to Jharkhand in three-tier AC coaches in the presence of official escorts on Ernakulam-Patna Express.

The state has planned to rehabilitate children. “They will go to schools or be trained in vocations. I will meet our chief minister (Hemant) to discuss livelihood management for Godda families that send their children to Kerala orphanages due to poverty,” Annapurna said.

This evening, SCPCR member Mishra, speaking from Palakkad, said: “A five-year-old girl told me aap mere abbu ko jaante hain, unhe kahiyega main ghar jana chahti hoon. (Do you know my father, can you tell him I want to go home). I want to see children getting united with their parents.”

But it is equally true that the case might have never come to light had the children not been detained for ticketless travel at Palakkad.

Hundreds of token workshops in hotels apart, Jharkhand hasn’t come up with any formal action plan for children.

State Advisory Committee on trafficking exists on paper but none of the railway stations have child protection committees or anti-trafficking squad. When the Godda children boarded the train to Kerala from Jasidih station in Deoghar, no one noticed.

“I fully appreciate the efforts put in by state rescue team this time. But were authorities in Godda sleeping all these years when mass migration of children was going on for so many years?” asked an SCPCR member.

Godda SP Ajay Linda said: “What we have found so far is that families send children voluntarily.” However, he parried the question on what they had done to arrest the trend.

Member of the district child welfare committee Pradeep Kaur Singh said they were demotivated. “We have not received salaries since February. District child protection officer promised funds would arrive by May. Still no show,” he said.

The panel, mandatory under Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, came into force in Godda only in October 2013. There is no official record of the numbers of migrants, traffickers, status of rescue and rehabilitation.