In 2019, the parents of a minor girl in Telangana's Warangal District received a jolt: their 14-year-old was five months pregnant. The minor, a Class eight student, had gone for a regular medical check-up when the pregnancy came to light. It was then that the parents and child rights activists learned that the girl had been sexually groomed and raped, allegedly by a 22-year-old man. "But the parents refused to approach the police and file a complaint citing societal presure, and absconded with their daughter, with the motive of carrying out an abortion,â€ť says Revathi Devi, a child rights activist, who was in touch with the family.
One of the main reasons why the family could abscond is because in Telangana, the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) has been defunct for close to two years. "If we had an SCPCR, we could have legally intervened, given counselling to the minor and her parents, ensured that a case was filed and due process was followed. Even if they resisted, we would have had the resources of the state government at our disposal and we could have shifted the girl to a safe place like a home," Revathi explains. The activist was a part of the last SCPCR, before it went defunct. And while there is an ongoing case at the Hyderabad High Court regarding the formation of an SCPCR, it has been dragging for two years.
And itâ€™s not just the SCPCR, a statutory body set up by the Parliament, which is being overlooked in the state. The month of June saw a spate of violence against minors and women in the state, which began with a nine-month-old girl child in Hanamkonda being kidnapped and sexually assaulted before being murdered on June 18. But the state has not had a Chairperson of the State Women's Commission for over a year to look into such cases. A Lokayukta is also yet to be appointed, despite the state being pulled up by the High Court. And the Telangana State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) also remains 'headless'.
Activists allege that the state government has little political will when it comes to ensuring the proper working of statutory bodies which protect human rights, particularly of women and children.
No protection for children
"The academic year has begun and children in schools and teenagers in college are in real need of counselling because they are under a lot of stress. The onus to provide such amenities is on the management of educational institutions, and the SCPCR can ensure that such things are enforced," says Revathi.
"With so many rape cases of minors coming to light, one of the most crucial things that an SCPCR can do is monitor cases registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, to ensure speedy investigation and swift justice," she adds.
The lack of functional committees results in other large issues remaining unaddressed as well. In case of the SCPCR, there are many pending cases of child marriages and child abuse.
Data accessed by TNM from the Women and Child Welfare Department (WCD) states that 113 cases of child sexual abuse and child rape, along with 55 cases of child marriage have been reported between December 2017 and June 2019.
And with no SCPCR in the state, sources say that the records of the statutory body are presently locked up and stored in a building in Ameerpet in Hyderabad.
No redressal for women
According to data available with the 'Sakhi One Stop Centre' Project Management Unit, under the Department of Women Development & Child Welfare in Telangana, 6,213 cases of violence against women and children have been reported between December 2017 and June 2019.
Of them, 5,025 â€“ or 80.88% of the total cases â€“ deal with domestic violence and harassment for dowry. Despite this, there has been no steps taken to appoint a chairperson to the Commission.
"Who approaches the Women's Commission? It is those women who feel failed by the system. It is a crucial body. Where do we go when the system is failing us?" asks Spurthi Kolipaka, a social activist who started an online petition, demanding the government set up a fully functional portal for the womenâ€™s commission, where complaints can be registered without having to approach the police each time.
Citing the Women's Commission Act, which says that the Commission has the powers to "investigate and examine all matters relating to the safeguards provided for women under the Constitution and other laws,â€ť Spurthi adds, "The Women's Commission acts as a watchdog. We say that SHE Teams, Bharosa Centres, and other such initiatives by the state government are doing well, but who is ensuring that the larger safeguards are working well?"
While on average, over 300 cases are reported to the Sakhi centre each month, data shows that there is a steep increase in the number of complaints, with the months of April, May and June 2019 witnessing 392, 605 and 598 cases respectively.
With cases piling up and the Women's Commission remaining headless, the Sakhi Centre has stepped in to provide timely intervention with an emergency rescue vehicle, provided medical and legal support to traumatised women, and is also offering them temporary shelter.
Human rights left unaddressed
The premises of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in Hyderabad at Nampally wears a deserted look as no cases have been heard for months now. "There is a lot of delay and we have been doing our jobs and taking a salary but many times, the victims who come with their complaints are sent back after receiving their petition, because no one is there to hear cases," a source at the SHRC tells TNM.
The last permanent SHRC Chairperson was Justice Nisar Ahmad Kakru, who completed his term in 2016. When he was demitting office, Kakru, who was also the former Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, cited the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, and delegated his responsibilities to Secretary D Subramanyam, a non-judicial officer.
Even after this, petitions were being received and cases were being heard but the Secretary retired on November 1, 2018, following which not a single case has come up for hearing.
According to the SHRC's own data provided to TNM, between November 1, 2018 and July 6, 2019, 3,823 fresh complaints have come in, and there is no one to hear these cases. The total pending cases are over 8,000 at present, according to some estimates.
K Karunakar, an advocate based in Hanamkonda, says that the SHRC is also yet to be bifurcated according to the tenth schedule of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, over five years since the formation of Telangana.
"There is no political will to appoint a Chairperson and members, and it reflects the apathy of concerned individuals in the government. Many complainants have also said that there is no proper maintenance of records," he says.
Where is the Lokayukta?
The Lokayukta, an autonomous anti-corruption body, is also yet to be appointed in Telangana, despite the state government being pulled up for the delay by the High Court in February this year. With no Lokayukta, Upa-Lokayukta or a Registrar appointed, all petitions in the premises located at Basheerbagh in Hyderabad are presently being handled by the Sub-Registrar.
Justice B Subhashan Reddy served as the last Lokayukta for the combined states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh after he was appointed to the post in 2012. However, since he stepped down from office, the institution has remained without a chief.
While cases were being heard till December 15, 2017, since then, not a single case has been heard.
An RTI response to TNM from the Public Information Officer of the Lokayukta showed that since December 15, 2017, 2,767 complaints have been received, while the total number of complaints pending with the institution was a staggering 5,283.
The RTI reply also said that the matter of bifurcation of the institution was also still pending with the governments of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
There is a large impact that the lack of these statutory bodies has, as those with grievances rush to an already overburdened High Court, which was just recently bifurcated â€“ in December last year â€“ for the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Speaking to TNM, advocate Vasudha Nagaraj says, "When aggrieved citizens cannot approach these institutions, for everything, they have to visit the High Court. The HC already is understaffed and there aren't enough judges (due to bifurcation). There is a huge pendency of cases. These institutions can provide intermediate relief to an aggrieved person, particularly women, but at present, they can't seek that relief."
"What is the point of having these institutions if they can't fill up the posts? There are so many cases pending in the HC where a response from these institutions are awaited but there is none yet," she adds.
TNM has reached out to Law Minister Indrakaran Reddy for a response and the article will be updated as and when he responds.