Charity or exploitation? Kerala NGO’s custody of over 100 children from other states raises questions

So many children from other states being brought to JSS has raised suspicions of exploitation in the Ernakulam Child Welfare Committee.
Charity or exploitation? Kerala NGO’s custody of over 100 children from other states raises questions
Charity or exploitation? Kerala NGO’s custody of over 100 children from other states raises questions
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 A war of allegations has emerged in Kerala between the Ernakulam Child Welfare Committee and social worker Jose Maveli’s Janaseva Shishubhavan, an 18-year-old organisation that shelters street children in Kerala. At the heart of the controversy are most of 170 children in two of JSS’s homes in Aluva.

Many people outside Kerala know Jose Maveli as the man who mercilessly, along with his team, killed stray dogs. 

The CWC alleges that 80% of the children housed here hail from other states and have been kept away from their hometowns for so long that they are losing their cultural identity. It also believes that JSS is not giving the children it shelters all the rights that are due to them.

Speaking to The News Minute, CWC Chairperson Padmaja Nair says, “There are children who haven't gone home in the past three years. It is great that JSS is giving them shelter and means to carry on their education, but it is unfair to keep them away from their parents and hometown. JSS has many a time prevented parents from taking their children away during vacation. JSS cannot illegally detain them. We suspect that the children are not given the rights they deserve," Padmaja Nair says.

 While the actions of the JSS management are not per se illegal, says Padmaja, the sheer number of children from other states being housed at the two Aluva homes renders the operation suspect.

"Earlier, nobody paid much thought to the fact that these children from other states are losing out on their interaction with their parents. Housing those children in Kerala was fine when there were very few such cases. But now, it is no longer an isolated incident. Children from other states are being brought in large numbers,” says Padmaja.

Padmaja reveals that JSS had previously come under suspicion of trafficking two years ago, when it brought 16 children from Arunachal Pradesh, before the CWC, claiming custody over them.

"Jose Maveli brought these children before the CWC and we refused to give them custody of such a huge number of children. The state government then sent the children back to AP (Arunachal Pradesh), but Maveli brought them back to Kerala the very next day. It is after we (the CWC) approached the High Court, that it ordered that the children be repatriated," Padmaja says. However, according to reports, no case of trafficking was filed against the organisation then.

Alongside this, the manner in which the organisation advertises itself in soliciting for funding has also put it under the CWC’s scanner on numerous occasions. Many of JSS’s hoardings, displayed at prominent locations across Kochi, says Padmaja, transgress norms for the use of children in them.

"The huge hoardings carry photographs of children who are not well. They use photographs of disabled and injured children on their hoardings, which is itself a violation of child rights. We have many a time spoken to Jose Maveli and objected to the hoardings, but he has never paid much attention to our objections," Padmaja states.

These allegations by the CWC have also been levelled against the organisation by a two-member committee from ChangeIndia, a Chennai-based child protection agency, who visited the two JSS homes in January this year.

The committee’s seven-page report, sent to the Chief Secretary of Kerala government, the DGP, the Chief Inspector of Juvenile Justice, the Chairperson of CWC and their Tamil Nadu counterparts, lists a number of violations by JSS. 

 Among other things, the report states: “No records of parents or guardians available for even one child. Many of the children have lost their identity. They have forgotten their native place, language and even their parents’ name.”

“The huge banners and posters in the entrance and living area of the children (in the two homes) constantly remind them of their vulnerable situation and reinforce psychological conditioning. Some of the inmate’s photos with bruises and wounds at the time of their rescue are displayed, which will affect the children emotionally and make them feeling self pity permanently. In both the homes, there are no watchmen and no compound walls, which violate then provisions under the JJ Act,” the report states.

Speaking to TNM, Babi Christina, one of the two members in the committee that visited JSS, reveals that there were also some fundamental problems like a lack of proper hygiene in the girls’ home. More importantly, she adds, the committee did not find as many children in the two homes as had been claimed by JSS, raising the suspicion that their numbers had been inflated to receive extra funding.

“We suspect that the number of children in both the centres was inflated, because we did not see all the 170 children that JSS is claiming to shelter. Most probably, they are fishing out funds in the name of these children, who are not even housed at the centre," Babi says. 

As an immediate check on the issue, the CWC has asked JSS to send the children belonging to other states back to their hometowns for summer vacation, and has set a deadline of March 31 for the organisation to do so. The committee will then review the situation to decide whether the children should be brought back to Kerala or be housed at centres in their respective hometowns monitored by the CWC.

The CWC feels that the solution to the problem of children being separated from their parents and losing their cultural identity is to house the children in other shelters in their own hometowns.  

However, say CWC officials, dealing with JSS’s other alleged violations is more difficult because the CWC does not possess any punitive powers. The CWC performs a monitoring role, with oversight over organisations like JSS that obtain their licences from the Board for Control for Orphanages and Other Charitable Homes. The only mandated power it possesses is over the granting of custody of children to particular homes, but cannot sanction JSS in any other way.

A senior official attached with the CWC tells TNM that their repeated complaints against JSS to the Social Justice Department of the state government have fallen on deaf ears. 

 "CWC is only a monitoring body and cannot take action against organizations like the JSS. It is the Social Justice Department that has to act on our complaints, which it is not doing. Jose Maveli has acquired much money power over the years by running the organization and nobody seems to be in a mood to take action against the man," the official says, on condition of anonymity.

Jose, however, claims that it is JSS that is being wronged and impeded in its work by the CWC. "The CWC is deliberately targeting us and wants to wipe us off the face of this earth. Poor children, what will they do if they are not allowed to return?" asks Jose.

Jose claims that certain vested interests within the CWC have been at work in impeding JSS. 

 "We are not doing anything illegal here. It is the CWC that is doing foul play by taking away the children. But what can we do, other than follow their orders?" Jose says. 

Jose says he now has an alternative project in mind – the building of hostels for children from tribal and other backward communities.  

"JSS was started in 1999 to eradicate (the problem of) street children, but now, thanks to the CWC, we are forced to shift our objective. The new hostel service will be open for children from Adivasi and other backward classes, above the age of six," Jose says. 

(Edited by Rakesh Mehar)

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