In conversation with the TISS team that audited children’s homes in Bihar

'It is about engaging with the state in a non–threatening but non-compromising manner.'

ByCherry Agarwal
In conversation with the TISS team that audited children’s homes in Bihar
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On July 29, Newslaundry published a story about a social audit of children homes in Bihar. The audit, done by the Koshish unit of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, had revealed that 15 institutions in Bihar were exploiting children. Subsequently, Newslaundry also interviewed the team that carried out the social audit to understand their motivation, composition of the team, the impact of the work, role of the state and media

Koshish, TISS field action project, was started in 2006, to work on the interrelated issues of beggary, destitution and homelessness. “It aims to humanise existing institutions under the beggary prevention law and work towards the rehabilitation of custodialised populations living in beggars’ homes,” the website states. In addition, “Koshish also works the towards the creation of policies and programmes for homeless populations and those who live at the margins of society in urban areas.”

It was founded by Mohd Tarique as a response to systemic injustice that happens under the Beggary Prevention Laws in the country. During his college days, Tarique was exposed to incidents where he witnessed the uncertainty of life on the streets. This led to the birth of Koshish. Started as a student initiative, Koshish, today, has grown into a national level program.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

The audit has revealed a dismal state of the children homes in Bihar. What are your thoughts?

Tarique: Actually, this is not about one district or one state. Except for Muzaffarpur Home and few others, institutions have been doing fairly okay. Of course, there is a need and possibility of improvement. However, the challenge we have is much deeper than few institutions; it is about the mechanism that exists today to prevent and report incidents of abuse. The challenge is about the institutional violence that exists all around and the apathy towards the poor that justifies or rather facilitates this violence. There is no state that can confidently say that its institutions are clean and still, we do not have states that are getting get their institutions evaluated. Maybe, it is the political vulnerability that such audits bring to the government, that is stopping them. But in the process, the safety of our children and other vulnerable groups is compromised. It is this attitude that is most dangerous.

What was the composition of the team and the scale of the research? Could you tell us more about this unit’s work?

Nilesh Kamble: This team has highly experienced and trained set of individuals. Apart from Tarique, the team includes Asif Iqbal with over 12 years of experience on issues of homelessness; Prem Narayan who leads legal aid and Social Protection programs; Apurva Vivek, a public health graduate and also a trained lawyer who leads women-centered intervention; Qayam Masumi, a TISS graduate in Labour studies and who leads Bihar unit, and Sunita Biswas, who has a degree in disability studies. There was another female colleague who had to move out in between due to health reasons.

[Nilesh himself has a degree in mental health studies. Previously, both Nilesh and Sunita have worked with government programmes.]

In Bihar, we covered a total of 110 institutions across 35 districts of the state. We interacted with stakeholders at different levels. Idea was to facilitate the improvement in the way these institutions are run and therefore we interacted with the chief functionaries of the organisations to understand what their challenges in running these homes were and if they needed some issues to be resolved. Similarly, we spoke to all staff and attempted to understand their perspective, their skills and what they felt would help them improve their efficiency. Most importantly, we spoke to the residents of each facility. We attempted to document the lived experiences of these people and instead of focusing on administrative or procedural aspects, we concentrated on how these people experienced the institutions.

Could you share your personal motivation for the work that you do?

Prem Narayan: The team itself serves as the motivation and hold each other [accountable]. It has been working with institutions as well as communities for several years now; seeing people face and fight the brutalities of streets is something that inspires Koshish. People living on the streets or in these institutions have tremendous courage and optimism and that serves as the biggest motivation and inspiration for the team.

It is not easy to practice ‘Systems Approach’ that we have; it is about engaging with the state in a non–threatening but non-compromising manner. The fact that we are able to play an active role in not just identifying the issues but also work towards addressing those issues makes all the hardships worth the efforts. We demand accountability from the state while ensuring that responsibility is shouldered by us in equal measures. States, therefore, are able to trust us and that results in positive response towards the issues we bring up. This relevance of our work and the ability to facilitate change in the most difficult environment is what keeps us going.

How did the report come about? Could you give us some background?

Qayam Masumi: It started with the conversation we had with the Principal Secretary, Social Welfare, where certain issues regarding institutional care were discussed. He wanted to understand how the institutions, run or supported by the department were doing. Institutions included all categories of child care institutions, short stay homes for women, old age homes, homes for persons with mental retardation and rehabilitation homes for persons in beggary. He wanted to understand if organisations running these institutions required any specific inputs, additional support or training etc from the government. The broad idea was to identify the challenges that affected the quality of care in these institutions and possible ways to address those. In case there were discrepancies in the functioning of the institutions, especially in the context of residents’ welfare, those were to be addressed accordingly.

What were the challenges you/the team faced during the investigation/research and compilation? 

Asif Iqbal: The biggest challenge was to remain neutral and rationale. Unlike routine assessments where administrative and procedural aspects are the focus, we were attempting to document lived experiences of people. Often, these are the stories of abuse and sufferings that impact you emotionally. It is not easy to give this confidence to people where they feel safe to open their lives to an unfamiliar person.

In addition, processing the information was equally difficult. We were looking at different categories of institutions and different populations. Their experiences, needs and expectations were different from each other. It is one thing to do a survey based on what documents and records show but an entirely different situation where you meet people. Often this can make a researcher start taking sides. For us, organisations were important stakeholders in this entire process and we needed to capture their issues and challenges with a similar degree of fairness.  We understood the responsibility we had on us and that ensured we remained objective through our audit and produced an honest and balanced report.

Was there some pushback from the state or the institutions audited following the disclosure of the report?

Nilesh Kamble: Thankfully this being the state process, we didn’t have any difficulty in accessing the institutions nor there was any pressure in terms of what goes in the report. Being an organisation known for its transparent work, it was easy for us in this regard.

What has been the impact of the report? Are the recommendations being implemented? How have things changed on the ground?

Asif Iqbal: The impact of the report can be seen in the way the issue/concern has been brought to the national discourse. There is pressure on states to have social audits conducted. Honourable Supreme Court has questioned the central government not only on whether social audits were done on not, but more importantly on the process followed. Court asked the government if they spoke to children while doing their audits, if they tried finding out whether or children were happy. We feel this is going to be the biggest impact created by this process; the shift in the approach and methodology where administrative and financial aspects will no more be considered sufficient and users of the facilities will become central.

The Social Welfare department acted strategically on the report and initiated investigation wherever needed.

Qayam Masumi: The report is expected to result in several ground-level reforms. Several issues like institutional capacity, disbursement of funds, appointment of personnel etc are being addressed proactively. Government is planning to have series of inputs and training on a regular basis and that shall surely result in improved efficiency of the institutions. Better monitoring mechanisms are being developed as a result of this report.

What do you think of media’s coverage of the report, their coverage of status of shelter homes and their treatment of such issues at large?

Prem Narayan:  Media has a crucial role when it comes to seeking accountability from the state. It works as a pressure group that makes government respond to situations. In this case also, media did play an active role in escalating the matter to the required level. However, there were also [instances of] reporting that one witnessed where highly insensitive and sensational methods were used to present. At one point, it became like a race to break news, without verifying facts or giving a thought about the impact this irresponsible reporting can have on the matter. It was disheartening to get requests from reporters to make them speak to children. In the rush of covering the subject, several journalists forgot the responsibility they carry to bring the news with responsibility, especially in a matter like this one. These children are struggling to cope up and get over the abuse they went through and every time some journalist tried speaking to them, it was kind of refreshing the pain.

While the media’s role and support is acknowledged, it is appealed that we do not sensationalise all matters. There are larger consequences .

What has the role of the state been in the entire process? While the government effort to initiate the audit is to be acknowledged, what does the dismal state of the shelter homes say about the state’s negligence/complicity? Your comments?

Tarique: Looking at Muzaffarpur as a case where entire child protection mechanism failed, the state’s role starting from the decision of getting the social audit done and more importantly, with the methodology that was adopted gives a lot of hope. It was definitely a risk that department took as such reports are sure to cause political vulnerability and shows department’s commitment towards cleaning the system. Further, the manner in which department accepted the recommendations and started with corrective measures gives lots of hope.

Having said this, it is important that the state is held accountable for the neglect and abuse that went on for such long period. It needs to invest heavily in the institutional Care Services in the state and this investment is not in terms of budgetary assistance alone.

Could the same work be replicated across states? What did you hope the investigation/report results in?

Qayam Masumi: Yes, it is possible to replicate this process across the states. It is not that we do not have audits or monitoring at present. The issues lie in the methodology where residents are hardly spoken to. Their experience of living in these institutions is rarely captured and analysed while evaluating any institution. Ensuring that no evaluation process will be considered complete unless residents are taken as central participants itself will result in massive change.

We have developed a note specifically on the process of conducting social audits in institutions and submitted it to the apex court along with the central government. We will be happy to have different states use the methodology and approach we have developed.

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