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Editorial: When caretakers turn abusers

Earlier last week, Tamil Nadu woke up to a horrifying news development involving the abuse endured by inmates in a home for the destitute located in Villupuram.

Editorial: When caretakers turn abusers

Earlier last week, Tamil Nadu woke up to a horrifying news development involving the abuse endured by inmates in a home for the destitute located in Villupuram. As many as 142 residents, including 109 men, 33 women and a boy who were rescued from the Anbu Jothi Ashram revealed blood-curdling episodes of sexual and physical assault, torture and manhandling visited upon the inmates left to the care of this privately run shelter.

Women were drugged, chained to window grills and raped while those who offered any sort of token resistance were hit with iron rods and set upon by monkeys. The residents also alleged that mentally unstable patients from the ashram were trafficked to other parts of the country.

On Monday, the Madras High Court instructed the Tamil Nadu police to file an Action Taken Report (ATR) on the case, within a week’s time. While four employees as well as the owners of the shelter have been taken into custody, the incident serves as a stark reminder of how vulnerable members of society, including the elderly who have been abandoned by their families, mentally-challenged individuals, as well as destitute persons are left to the mercy of unforgiving and unscrupulous institutions that function without accountability. Sadly, Tamil Nadu’s track record with regard to the supervision of such facilities is pitiable.

One might recall the tragic fire accident that took place in a home for the mentally-ill in Erwadi, Ramanathapuram in 2001. As many as 28 inmates who were bound by chains to various fixtures in the run-down shelter, were charred to death in the blaze, and the incident sent shock waves across India. In the aftermath of this incident, all such shelters were shut down by the government, and over 500 inmates were sent for rehabilitation to government-run homes. The tragedy also prompted the Supreme Court to offer recommendations pertaining to care homes set up for the mentally-ill, instructing that all such institutions must acquire a licence and that the inmates cannot be kept chained.

Of course, the State is not alone in the roster of such developments. In 2018, in a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, another can of worms was opened when it was reported that the caretakers were getting away with gross mistreatment of the inmates, particularly because they were in cahoots with the local government officials. In the recent Villupuram case, the institution had been operating for close to 20 years in the absence of a licence. One year ago, the shelter had as many as 180 inmates, exhibiting one or the other form of mental retardation, but the home did not employ either a psychiatrist or even a doctor, as per the district mental health authority.

According to stakeholders in the policy space, the recent episode that transpired in Tamil Nadu should embolden the government to put its audit machinery into action and embark on an exercise to record which shelters in India are licensed and the ones that are not. Registration of such homes for the needy is a must and there needs to be frequent checks and assessments to ascertain if they are worthy of operating. Experts recommend that all States should maintain an online registry of their shelters with up-to-date information on the inmates, management and the sources of funds that run such institutions. The lackadaisical approach to the upkeep of such shelters managed by NGOs and private individuals is the reason why the vulnerable in India slip through the cracks.

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