“Orphanage children restored to their families.” Makes great headline. No?
The writer feels instant catharsis. The reader feels a warmth going down her legs. Allow me to replace the warmth of a garb with the chill of truth.
Lakshya, 7, is an orphan. He was handed over to the police sometime after his parents died, by his own relatives. They admitted without qualms that he was a burden. The police assigned him to a care home where he was to be one among a hundred boys, aged between 5 and 18. Given his middle class background, fair cheeks and chubby appearance, Lakshya was immediately adopted as a Teddy Bear by one and all, who cuddled and spoiled him to no end. Never to have known such love (Lakshya was born to a wrecked marriage), the boy felt at home for the first time. He rejoined school, with ample seniors to help him cover a sustained gap owing to family turbulence. Four years in the care home, despite its due share of fights and constraints, Lakshya grew with love. A hale and hearty, and above all, a happy young boy.
Till one day, when the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) donned the holy suit of the savior, and announced thus: The boy shall be ‘restored’ to his family.
That’s the thing about power without responsibility. It’s like wielding sword for the feel-good rush, without realizing the massacre caused in the process.
An unwilling Lakshya was dispatched to resenting relatives. One year after this fateful event, the relatives returned with him to the Police, saying that the boy had been running ill and the family didn’t have the wherewithal to get him treated. The boy once more became a file going from Police to CWC, and finally, back to the care home. Once more in the loving care of his fellow friends, Lakshya recapitulated his ordeal of one year. His relatives discontinued his schooling, thrashed him for no reason, made him do back-breaking chores all day, and left him to feed on leftovers. When he started spewing blood after protracted illness, they panicked and handed him over to the Police.
The care home got him medically examined. He was diagnosed with blood cancer. Last stage.
Today, Lakshya is technically bleeding to death in AIIMS. His brothers from care home take turns to donate blood to keep his transfusion going. They know as clearly as he does, that his days are numbered.
Whoever said blood is thicker than water.
When Sheela was presented before Court, she squarely admitted to the facts. She had murdered her husband, after a decade of destructive marriage. She was presented with two options. Either keep your children, Rima (9) and Raina (6), in Tihar Jail child-care centre, or send them to a care home via CWC. Not wanting to bear the shame in her children’s eyes upon seeing their mother as a convict, she chose the latter.
Initially, the girls were terrified to enter into a new environment, and pined to return to their mother. With time, however, they warmed up to the place. They started enjoying school, the company of 40 other girls, the comfort of a routine, decent food and clothing, and little luxuries like a private tuition.
Eight months before Sheela was due to be released, news came in that the length of her imprisonment had been shortened on account of good behavior, and she stood released from the iron bars. Though bursting to hold her children to heart, the news was deeply distressing for her. With no job to work for, no family support, no bank-balance, how would she feed and educate her girls? She decided to present her problems before the CWC, which she did, to no avail. They heard her plea, and allowed her a full month’s time before she could take control of children’s lives. The verdict came with a fair share of spiritual advice.
Today, Sheela makes her ends meet by working as a domestic maid, joined by her children on weekends. They still attend school, but far lesser in standard.
Such was also the case with Payal (8), except that in her case, the father replaces the mother. Payal’s father killed his wife upon learning that she loved someone else. Youngest of three siblings, Payal alone was sent to the CWC because her elder brothers were no longer minor. She completed her schooling with the help of her care home, and was in the second year of graduation when her father materialized after serving his jail term. He wanted his girl back. Payal protested. She told everyone that her worth was that of a golden goose for her greedy and mean-minded father. The CWC, of course, paid no heed to the angry outbursts of a teenager. She too was restored to her father, but being the street-smart girl she is, she wriggled out of the situation by attaining entry into another charitable home.
There are many more. Sumedha and her brother, abandoned by a couple who couldn’t face each other anymore, none wanting to keep the children. Jyoti, whose mother fled with her lover to an unknown place, leaving her to the mercy of an angry father who took to drinking. Reena, Kusum and Raj, the three siblings who were abandoned in a park by their father, out of vindictiveness, because their mother eloped with her lover. Suman, whose father committed suicide after a bitter struggle with her mother, and the latter went into a self-afflicted process of decay and devastation.
Why am I telling you these stories? These abject tales of horror and dismay, where there is enough evidence to suggest that earth is full of love and life?
Observe closely. These stories have two things in common. One, all these children belonged to unhappy couples. Two, their fates were decided by a body of so-called experts, who had little stake in the deal.
Let’s take them one by one.
There is no agreement on what constitutes a bad marriage, as the threshold of pain varies for people and cultures. It is also a widely acknowledged experience that marital life comes with its own share of wear-and-tear. For the sake of stability and raising future generation, a lot is, and maybe should be, borne for the sanctity of marriage. But there is line beyond which marriages destroy more than they create. That’s when fighting, bitterness, prolonged sadness, progressive deterioration, and overall negativity far outweighs the worth of togetherness. THAT is when marriages turn bad. And nobody can tell that point in time better than the individuals involved.
The reaction to this point in marriage, too, varies with people and culture. Since people are a subset of culture in the societal context, it can be argued that their reaction is shaped by the predominant thought-system. Though times are changing, Indian culture places extra-high premium on marriages. Girls are raised to be dutiful wives, often also by themselves. Men are cultured as bread-earners and keepers of family pride. Little possibility is seen or discussed for a life without marriage. Divorce is such a taboo, and legal complication, that people prefer ravaging their life over breaking free. The damage gets accelerated and exacerbated to the point that suicide and spousal homicide seem easier options.
Strangely, most elders advise couples to stick on for the sake of children. The road to hell was indeed paved with good intentions. Lakshya, Rima, Raina, Payal, Sumedha, Jyoti, Suman etc are examples of those children, whose parents could not break out of an impending disaster because the society was hostile. In the end, the house of conflict turns into a gas chamber without windows, snuffing the very life out of its residents.
The Law Commission of India has twice proposed the inclusion of ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ as a valid ground for divorce. This option allows warring partners to call it a day, without pinning the blame on either, thereby eliminating collateral damage in the process. In accordance with this recommendation, the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2013 was passed by the Rajya Sabha, got lapsed before it could be considered by the Lok Sabha. In absence of this very vital safety valve, bad marriages continue to fester, as partners feed-off each other like parasites.
Norway, which scores highest on the Human Development Index (HDI), and also ranks 1 on the Forbes Happiness Index, has a divorce to marriage ratio of 44%. India, which may boast of scoring 1% on the same scale, ranks 135 on the HDI chart. Certainly, children born in high divorce societies aren’t living a lousy life. India’s remarkably low level of divorces isn’t contributing to its happiness either (we rank 106 on the Forbes Happiness Index).
Should we not stop and ask ourselves, what are we doing in the name of marriage? How many more adults do we hang for our misguided sense of family pride? How many more children do we breed in an atmosphere of depression and hostility?
Moving on the conscience keepers on earth, namely, CWC.
As per the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000, state governments are required to establish a CWC or two in each district. Each CWC consists of a chairperson (supposedly well-versed in child welfare matters) and four members, of which one must be a woman. The CWC has the same powers as a metropolitan magistrate or a judicial magistrate of the first class, which means that they can take all important decisions on behalf of the child.
For their records, CWC consults each child before deciding her/his fate. Having heard first-hand accounts of such encounters, one can conclude that they are far from a heart-to-heart chat. Isn’t it noteworthy, that every child I know is petrified with this body? If one feels terrified to go to a place which was established for safeguarding one’s interest, isn’t there a fundamental mismatch?
As can be seen from their outcome, the dry-mouth syndrome faced by children is because they are partially aware of the fate they will meet. In simple words, they dread going back to where they came from – their broken homes. And they know equally surely, that the CWC is going to inveigle them into agreeing to it. The children might not be able to read CWC’s annual highlights, but they are aware how swell it sounds to read and say – that a child was restored to her family.
One can ask, why don’t children fight back/ speak up? To that one, I ask. When as grown up adults, we barely gather the courage to fight biases; how do children emulate something they’ve never seen?
I do not know, whether the hurry and pressure for CWC to restore children is a government diktat or societal obligation. But whatever it is, the pretty score on their report card is inked in children’s blood. It is better to have a peaceful and educated child living with no parent/ single parent, than one living on a daily dose of hatred. Let children of such kind be family to one-another, and government their provider.
This deeply disturbing trend of CWC is actually reflective of the mindset discussed in the first part of this article. The true measure of a child’s welfare lies in her education, health and physical and emotional environment. Surely, all children need parents. But where parents are emotionally ruined and constantly tormented, the child would rather have one or none. Seek your truth. Ask the child yourself.
It’s time we overthrew old assumptions, and contemplated new options.