The news of repeated rapes of minor and other girls at shelter homes in Muzaffarpur, Bihar and Deoria in Uttar Pradesh has sent shock waves through the public. Girls as young as 7 were being drugged and raped by large numbers of men. This may even be the mere tip of the iceberg. With over 9,000 such shelter homes in the country what goes on in most of them is anybody’s guess.

What little has come to light should shame all Indians on one hand, and on the other, those responsible and accountable for overseeing the functioning of these homes should be hauled over the coals.

These shelter homes are institutions meant to house and take care of abandoned or orphaned children. Since these so called ‘homes’ receive monetary grants from the government, surely some level of supervision of their functioning is called for. However, no one seems to be responsible for what has been taking place inside them.

Briefing the press after media reports on the activities at Muzaffarpur and Deoria, Union Minister for Women and Child Development (WCD) Maneka Gandhi said she had passed orders to the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to ensure that a social audit of these homes is completed in the coming two months.

The audits are to go beyond the cursory checking of just the number of children, beds and other facilities available, to include a complete background check of those running these homes, and also look into the children's problems.

What Maneka Gandhi has not told the press is why such simple instructions for these homes did not exist earlier, and what she as the minister responsible for the NCPCR was doing all these years.

Did she as WCD Minister ever visit any of these homes, talk to the children, or even know (as per a study by her own ministry) that almost 50 percent of these shelter homes were unregistered? Of course it would be too much to expect the minister concerned to visit any of these homes or know at first hand what goes on there, and then take action.

What need concern us is that the happenings at Muzaffarpur and Deoria are not isolated cases, but are likely a common activity at almost all such shelter homes including those for young boys. That the licence of the Deoria home was cancelled in June 2017, yet it continued to function, speaks poorly of the state of affairs at the district level and beyond. This home at Deoria had a secret entry for the ‘respectable’ to go in and rape little girls.

The state government's inquiry team had submitted its report, and other district officials too claim to have written a number of letters to the district police on the closure of the shelter home at Deoria. Superintendent of Police R.P. Kanay states that he personally passed instructions to police stations, and that even at the ‘crime detection meeting’ instructed his officials not to send girls to this shelter home. Yet girls continued to be sent there.

Did he know that his orders were being flouted, and that in spite of orders to close down this particular home it was continuing to function? Not only were girls still being sent there by the police, but policemen were frequently visiting it and for what purpose!

Obviously the deputy commissioner of Deoria was not bothered to know what was going on in his district. Merely posting him out seems to be enough! Nor did the additional deputy commissioner know that the daughter of Girija Tripathi was working in his office, and that she had been detailed to conduct an audit of the shelter home at Deoria, which was being run by her mother.

Girija Tripathi would frequently organise functions at this shelter home and invite district bigwigs. Activities at the home came to light only when one of the girls managed to escape and reported the matter to the police. So much for the police's own intelligence work!

Some years ago it was found that at the state-run orphanage in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, foreign and Indian tourists were being let in to have sex with small girls: for money. This led to a public interest litigation being filed in the Supreme Court, and the home was closed down.

An audit proforma from Tamil Nadu did come up before the Supreme Court (in October 2015) concerning the sexual exploitation of children at one of their orphanages. Although this proforma has a section on ‘Prevention of and protection from abuse, including emotional, sexual and physical,’ of children in these homes, the Supreme Court in May 2017 dealt mainly with the need for yearly social audits, not just for purposes of introspection but also transparency and accountability in the effective implementation of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act.

The court missed the central issue of sexual exploitation of children.

Simple rules are not implemented, or law and order issues handled appropriately in this country, simply because no official is clearly held responsible and accountable for lapses, even serious ones. If our cities continues to be filthy, the adulteration of food items goes on unhindered, drugs are smuggled across a well-fenced and well-lit border and freely sold, rivers have become highly polluted, companies who prepare fake passports and visas and illegally send young boys to foreign lands go undetected, and a whole range of other maladies persist, it is essentially because there simply is no accountability of those responsible.

No one is held responsible even for colossal failures. At the lower level, district magistrates have no accountability whatsoever. If accountability were brought in all the above maladies would disappear. Unfortunately the bureaucracy has built a protective shield against any worthwhile action for all such failures.

Failure to do one's duty should result not in mere posting of the concerned official elsewhere, but their sacking, or at the minimum an adverse report and sealing of further progress in their career. There is a need to lay down responsibility clearly. Failures and successes should be followed by punishments or rewards, and an immediate change for the better will automatically come about.

Authority, responsibility and accountability should be dished out as a composite package. What is missing in this package is accountability: right across the political-bureaucratic spectrum officials are well sheltered.

(Lt General Harwant Singh is retired from the Indian Army)