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Child trafficking plot thickens - Under ally pressure, Kerala govt shies away from launching full-fledged investigation

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  • Published 8.06.14

Thiruvananthapuram, June 7: Nearly a fortnight after over 500 children were found stuffed in trains that arrived in Kerala late last month, investigators are yet to press trafficking charges against the orphanages that are under the scanner or even question its officials.

Many of the children, over 160 from Jharkhand alone, had gone without food and water for hours together and were travelling ticketless.

Some of them were travelling with their parents. Yet all were going to Mukkam Muslim Orphanage in Kozhikode.

In terms of action, there have been only a few cursory arrests of alleged agents who brought the children along. And if the Kerala government is seen to be dithering on moving quickly to bring the culprits to book, there are reasons.

The chairman of the orphanage is Syed Hyederali Shihab Thangal, the tallest leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, which is also an ally of the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front government.

“The railway police division of Kerala police has registered a case under Section 370(5) of the IPC. The charge relates to trafficking of minor children and they are investigating,’’ Palakkad district collector K. Ramachandran told The Telegraph.

But what he does not say is that this has been the position since May 25 when the children were found in the trains that arrived at the Olavakkode railway station in Palakkad.

Around 500 children, mostly from Bihar and Jharkhand, were found hoarded — some of them had gone without food and water for hours — in three compartments of the Patna Kochi Express, which reached Palakkad on May 24.

Another 123 children from West Bengal had arrived by another train a day later. The first batch of children was to be taken to Mukkam orphanage, while the 123 were to be sent to Anwarul Huda orphanage in Malappuram district.

A high-level crime branch team constituted to probe the incident has so far arrested 10 persons, allegedly agents.

While four of them are from Malda in West Bengal, the rest belong to Godda in Jharkhand.

The last arrest, that of 30-year-old Shafeek Sheikh of Persia village in Godda, was carried out yesterday. Police say he was in the train with the children but had fled the scene on seeing them. He has been working in the Mukkam orphanage as a cook since the last three years and had helped bring at least a dozen children to Kerala in the past.

His wife Rubic Hatoom is a cleaner in the orphanage.

However, even the crime branch team is yet to take any of the orphanage officials into custody for questioning. The reasons are obvious.

The IUML is upset at the manner in which the investigation was proceeding and wanted the state to drop the trafficking angle.

Party MP E.T. Mohammed Basheer said neither the officials of the states to which the children belong, nor their parents, had complained to the Kerala government of any illegality and hence it could not be termed child trafficking.

Orphanage authorities also maintain that it was only a case of lack of understanding of the legal provisions and that there was nothing wrong in trying to give children from poverty-stricken areas in Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal food and education.

But the answer fails to explain why children whose parents were alive were labelled as orphans and admitted to the orphanage.

The ally pressure seemed to show on the ruling Congress too, with Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy terming it procedural lapse and home minister Ramesh Chennithala saying he did not want to comment for fear of influencing the investigation.

Not many seem to agree with their versions.

The state child welfare committee has written to the railway police seeking legal action against the perpetrators and demanding a report at the earliest.

The nodal officer of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), DIG S. Sreejith, was one of the first to examine the issue and had gone on record to say that it was a “clear case of child trafficking’’.

The rules for inter-state transfer of children did not seem to have been observed, he had said.

Rights commission chief Justice J.B. Koshy said he would wait till the inquiry was over before reaching any conclusion, but added that several suspicions like the likelihood of the children being subjected to organ trade or sexual abuse needed to be probed in detail.

He revealed that some of the orphanages had resisted when the commission tried to conduct an audit of their activities in the past.

One institution from Malappuram had even approached the state high court against this.

But just as the government appeared to be chickening out, there was hope from Kerala High Court. Acting on a plea by an NGO, a bench of Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice P.R. Ramachandra Menon has called for a “serious investigation’’ into why such large number of children had come to Kerala.

The court has also issued notices to Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. The Union ministry of social welfare and railways were also impleaded in the petition. The hearing is on June 19.