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CONTROVERSY

Murkier, and murkier

Massive irregularities were found across shelter homes in Uttar Pradesh

In the dock: Girija and husband, Mohan Tripathi, after their arrest | Pawan Kumar

ON THE NIGHT of August 5, the police raided the Maa Vindhyavasini Mahila and Balika Sanrakshan Griha in Deoria, following the confession of a 10-year-old inmate who managed to escape from there. She told the police that girls at the shelter home were sexually exploited, and were beaten up if they did not comply with the orders of ‘madam’—Girija Tripathi, who runs the home. The girls were allegedly sent to nearby districts like Gorakhpur and Varanasi to entertain clients, and were paid Rs 200- Rs 300. The police rescued 24 girls and sealed the shelter home. Five persons, including Girija and her husband, Mohan, were arrested. But, 18 other girls, whose names were on the rolls of the shelter home, were missing at the time of the raid.

After the Deoria shelter home sex racket came to light, the Uttar Pradesh government sought a report from all shelter homes in the state, and raids are being carried out across districts. State Minister of Women and Child Welfare Rita Bahuguna Joshi told THE WEEK, “Reports from shelter homes in various districts have reached the department. They are being studied, but at first glance it can be said that there are massive irregularities.” At a shelter home in Pratapgarh, for instance, 26 girls were found to be missing. In another shelter home in Pilibhit, around 23 women were said to be missing.

And, those who run these homes make the lives of the inmates a living hell. Two victims who were kept at a shelter home in Varanasi last year told THE WEEK that they had been “living there like insects”. The ‘madam’ there would make them do all the household chores and would verbally and physically abuse them. “After all the physical torture, we were asked to satisfy clients who would often visit the home,” they said.

The Yogi Adityanath government had directed district officials to inspect shelter homes and file reports, soon after the Muzaffarpur shelter home rapes case in Bihar broke out. But, the orders were ignored. Take the case of the Deoria shelter home, which was derecognised last year because of financial irregularities. “Twenty letters were sent to district officials,” said Joshi. “They were asked to shift the inmates elsewhere, but officials did not act on the orders.”

police seal their shelter home in Deoria.

These shelter homes house orphans, girls who had gone missing and were later found by the police and those rescued from red-light areas. As per police records, around 200 girls and women are rescued every year. The Deoria shelter home records showed that from 2016 till before the raid, 709 women were sent to the shelter home. Of these, 405 were sent there after its derecognition.

There are major problems in handling such cases, said Ajit Singh, head of Guria, an NGO that fights human trafficking. “Owing to faulty investigations, loose charge-sheets and apathy of investigating officers, such cases often do not lead to the conviction of the accused,” he said.

Take, for instance, the case lodged by Guria against the Government Shelter Home (Women) at Kalandi Vihar in Agra. It was found that 57 women including girls who were residing at the home were sold. Despite the intervention of the Supreme Court and a plethora of petitions to various authorities, none of the girls have been found yet. Only the warden of the shelter home, Geeta Rakesh, has been arrested.

The women and girls who are missing from the government shelter were first rescued from Meergunj, a red-light area in Allahabad, by Guria in 2016. At the shelter homes, the modus operandi usually is to hand over the girls to “fake parents and relatives” for around Rs 7 lakh. During their stay at the home, members of Guria said that the girls would entertain customers. While the warden would charge around Rs 20,000, she would pay the girls only Rs 2,000.

The case was initially being investigated by circle officer B.S. Tyagi, who had told the court during trial that there were more accused involved. He was, however, transferred to Sitapur. Guria wrote several applications to stall Tyagi’s transfer, but to no avail. “Sanjay Kumar, the new investigating officer, did tardy investigation,” said Singh. “He sided with the other traffickers and only made Geeta Rakesh the accused. He did not make any sincere efforts to trace the re-trafficked girls.” Superintendent of Police (Agra) Prashant Verma, however, said that the accused has been jailed and the efforts are on to trace the missing girls.

It is said that Geeta wields immense political and bureaucratic clout. Sunil Kumar, a prosecution witness in the case, told THE WEEK that he was threatened outside the courtroom. “I reported the matter to the then district judge and judge of the trial court, but nothing happened,” he said. He was beaten up, and has received death threats.

Girija, too, has connections among politicians, the police and officials. “Girija’s contacts are very strong,” said a local resident. “Many previous district magistrates, police superintendents and other officials frequented her shelter home and were seen at her gatherings.”

Before opening the shelter home, Girija, in her early sixties, used to run a small stitching and embroidery shop. Her husband was a labourer in a sugar mill, but lost his job during a retrenchment drive. Their fortunes changed when the shelter home got accreditation in 2009. The family now owns a swanky house, acres of land and several cars.

Gopal Krishna, prosecution lawyer for the Agra shelter home case, said, “The main accused in such cases are very powerful; their network is virtually impregnable.” He added that soon the records will be fudged and the girls who earlier claimed to have been abused will turn hostile, either due to threat or lure of money. “Political pressure will also work,” he said, “and those involved in the case would try very hard to turn the probe in their favour.”

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