The Supreme Court today expressed shock at the discrepancy in two surveys reflecting a difference of around two lakh children staying in child care institutions and said it was “very, very disturbing” that such children were being “treated” as mere numbers.
The top court was shocked when it was told that as per a 2016-17 survey carried out at the directions of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the number of children living in child care institutions (CCIs) was around 4.73 lakh, while the data filed in the court by the government this March says it was about 2.61 lakh.
“It is not clear what has happened to the balance of around two lakh children. These children appear to be missing from the statistics,” a bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur said.
It also asked the Centre “how many children are missing in this country besides these two lakh” and said if the provisions of law were being implemented in “letter and spirit”, then child abuse incidents like those in Muzaffarpur and Deoria would not have happened.
The bench, which also included Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Deepak Gupta, observed that there was a possibility that the CCIs may have given “inflated figures” to state governments to get more funds. This serious issue needs to be looked into, it said.
The counsel representing the Centre told the court that the government had compiled the data supplied by states and union territories about the number of children living in CCIs and filed the report in this regard in March.
“We rely on figures provided by states. The states have to say how there is such a variation. We will get back to the states as to which figure is correct,” the Centre’s counsel told the bench, adding “if these children are missing, it is a cause of serious concern and this is very, very alarming.”
The bench referred to the suggestions given by advocate Aparna Bhat, who is assisting the court as an amicus curiae in the matter, and said it was contemplating setting up of a national level and state level committees to monitor the CCIs. It noted the submissions of amicus that committees at the national and state levels could deal with the issue of CCIs so that recent incidents like alleged rape and sexual abuse of minor girls and women at shelter homes in Muzaffarpur in Bihar and Deoria in Uttar Pradesh were prevented.
The Centre’s counsel told the court that he would take instructions whether the government was prepared to have such a committee at the national level in this regard. The bench posted the matter for hearing on August 28.
At the outset, the amicus told the bench that the Centre has filed an affidavit in the matter and pointed out the “shocking” detail about the discrepancy in the data on the number of children living in CCIs across the country. She told the top court that one of the surveys says there were around 4.73 lakh children residing in CCIs, while the other put the number at only 2.61 lakh.
“It shows how serious the problem is. What is to be done? It makes us feel very sad that children are treated only as numbers. They too have soul, they too have heart. How long can we continue like this? It is very very disturbing,” Justice Lokur observed.
The amicus told the court that one of the positive things that has happened was that number of unregistered CCIs have gone down. She also raised the issue of waiting period of around 3-4 years in the adoption process of such children and said this delay made the chances of adoption bleak.
The amicus said that out of 9,589 CCIs across the country, there was problem of overcrowding of children in 1,596 homes and no CCI existed in 97 districts. She also referred to the issue of corporal punishments and other abuses meted out to the children living in CCIs.
The bench suggested creation of a mechanism, where cases of abuse in CCIs must be reported to the concerned authorities within 24 hours so that action could be taken.
The counsel for the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) told the bench that they had written to the Ministry of Women and Child Development on the issue, but no data was shared with them.
During the hearing, the Centre’s counsel told the bench that discrepancy about the number of children living in CCIs could be due to error in statistics or states might not have given the correct details to the government.
The bench shot back, “whom do we trust then? Nobody knows where are they (these two lakh children)”. It also told the Centre that they must look into the matter seriously as such error in statistics was not acceptable.
The Centre’s counsel said that states should be called upon in the matter since the government was only providing funds to the states. “Law is made by Parliament. You have to tell us. It is one thing that law is made by Parliament, but states will say we do not bother. What should we do? You must have the overall picture,” the bench observed.
On May 5 last year, the apex court had passed a slew of directions including setting up of a data base of children living in orphanages and CCIs to ensure their safety and welfare.