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Nithari's lessons

Print edition : Feb 23, 2007 T+T-
HIGH-SPEED ACCESS TO the Net has foiled attempts to keep children totally away from objectionable material online.-

HIGH-SPEED ACCESS TO the Net has foiled attempts to keep children totally away from objectionable material online.-

The serial killings should trigger the much-needed debate on protecting children not only from homicides but also from other forms of physical abuse.

THE Nithari serial killings confirm that we have ceased to be a nation that cares for the physically weak and socially underprivileged. The children brutally murdered in this Uttar Pradesh village were not merely poor. Many came from the usually neglected sections of the community such as Dalits. The police were hardly stirred by the loss that these hapless villagers had suffered and did nothing to locate the children who had vanished over a period of time until the media made a noise about it.

Would the killings have happened if the Mahatma were still alive? This is the dumb question being raised in some circles. My unequivocal response is that we have moved so far away from what the Father of the Nation stood for that, alive or not, he would have been brusquely ignored, and by this time, more Nitharis would have blotted our reputation.

Also, I am not surprised that the nation's outrage at the abominable crime has been muted and nominal at best. This is because our attitude to human life is utterly casual.

Evidence of this, if at all such evidence is required, is the mounting fatalities in traffic accidents, one of the highest in the world, about which the Supreme Court passed strong comments just a few weeks ago. We continue to be indisciplined on our roads, and it does not matter if such arrogance and thoughtlessness imperil the lives of fellow-citizens, who are too ill organised to protest. In this, and in a host of other things such as care for the young and elderly, we in the community are as much culpable as governments are, although with some steely resolve, we can still stem the rot.

What is so significant about Nithari that we will have to weep our hearts out? Apart from police negligence that is culpable, it highlights the growing vulnerability of our children, who probably need greater attention than our women and senior citizens.

Nithari cannot be dismissed as a mere case of a psychopath going berserk. There is a lot more that is frightful. One report floating around is that the victim children were possibly done away with to harvest their organs and sell them in a market that is ever in need of such precious commodities. This has been dismissed as wild speculation. The very fact that such a rumour was circulating for a while in the days following the gruesome discovery points to the implications of the crime.

There is now an established nexus between child predators and some unscrupulous medical practitioners, and unless such an unholy link is severed, none of our children will be safe.

Child victimisation is no doubt a global problem. We receive shocking reports from time to time from different parts of the world. Trafficking in children for sale and for use in pornography, mainly online, is also a forbidding menace. Its enormous reach has still not sunk in. I only hope Nithari will trigger the much-needed debate on protecting children not only from homicides but from other forms of physical abuse as well.

Crime in India

In 2005 (the last year for which figures are available), children were victims in 14,975 cases. This was a nearly 4 per cent increase over the previous year. There were 108 murders (predominantly foeticides) during the year. What should shock us is that there were as many as 4,026 child rapes, representing a 14 per cent rise. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra together accounted for more than one-third of them.

The year 2005 was noteworthy for another reason: 10 per cent spurt in kidnappings, taking the tally to more than 3,500. Uttar Pradesh accounted for one-fifth of them. More than 900 children were found either exposed (to nature or danger) or abandoned (a crime under Section 317 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860), a number that was 30 per cent higher than the previous year.

And mind you, we will have to make allowances for under-reporting of crime and under-registration by a heartless police force. So there could be Nitharis that have not surfaced for a variety of reasons. In any case, the figures quoted by the NCRB should cause enormous concern to all citizens with a conscience.

The United States is one country where crime statistics are a lot more reliable. It is again a country from where we have copied a lot that we should not have: our fascination for fast food and fast cars and the patterning of our movies after Hollywood, which deifies violence and sex, to mention just a few. These have an undisputed impact on crime, providing inspiration to hordes of anti-social elements in different parts of India, especially the four Metros.

An average of 2,000 homicides of children take place annually in the U.S. Almost 50 per cent of such homicides are committed using firearms.

You may recall a gory incident on October 2, 2006, in Paradise (Pennsylvania) in which a milk-truck driver, with three firearms, drove into the local school and shot dead five girls. This was an unprovoked attack, and the motive for the crime is unknown. The U.S. has had more than 20 such school shootouts in its history.

Another incident in recent years that shook the nation's conscience was the trial last year of 70-year-old California geneticist Dr. William Anderson on charges of molesting a colleague's daughter from 1997 to 2001. The jury found him guilty of continuous sexual molestation and committing a lewd act on a child. Interestingly, Anderson was a runner-up for Time magazine's `Man of the Year' in 1995. A few weeks ago, he was convicted to 14 years in prison. Anderson's case would indicate what kind of a child offender we are up against.

What the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other observers of the scene are most worried about is the role of the Internet in the victimisation of children. With greater computer penetration in our own country - in another decade there will hardly be a child in urban India who is not computer-literate - this is a phenomenon that should attract the attention of parents as well as law enforcement in India.

First, pornography on the Net is so blatant that every child-surfer will sometime or the other stumble on smut in cyberspace. Significant are the findings of a study conducted last year by the Crimes Against Children Research Centre, University of New Hampshire. About 1,500 children in the 10-17 age group were questioned. Thirteen per cent of the respondents told the surveyors that during 2005 they got an unsolicited online request for sexual activity or conversation with adults or other children. Some of the solicitations were actually aggressive.

The devices of technology, such as filters, to block pornography have had only a modest impact. High-speed access to the Net has foiled attempts to keep children totally away from objectionable material. These developments in the U.S. have their relevance to Indian parents. Any indifference towards their wards' surfing habits can be disastrous.

The second aspect of free Internet availability to children is the real danger of their cultivating undesirable strangers in cyberspace. There are thousands of predators looking for gullible children who are poorly supervised by their parents and are therefore vulnerable.

Here are two practical tips: Do not permit your children to meet face-to-face any stranger whom they have got to know only online. (It is true that you can intervene only if you know in advance of such a meeting.) Always look for signs of anxiety or distress in a child who spends an abnormally long time at a computer. This is generally indicative of something that has gone awry, such as blackmail by a stranger. I am fairly certain that a child who wants to meet a stranger knows that parental approval for such a meeting will be hard to secure, and he or she will therefore be under immense stress. Failure to read a child's face could lead to disaster for the parent.

It is learnt that a Bill on child protection is on the anvil for presentation to Parliament. This is a welcome move, but one cannot expect it to perform miracles. As in the case of any other legislation that has at least a partial social reform agenda, here also a huge community initiative is required to make the law work. There are non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse (CPHCSA) of Chennai, that are dedicated to the cause of protecting children. If governments make judicious use of such NGOs, we can expect the prospective child protection Bill to bring in measurable results.