Print edition : December 03, 2010

Muskan and (below) her brother Hritik, who were abducted and murdered in Coimbatore.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT Muskan and (below) her brother Hritik, who were abducted and murdered in Coimbatore.

The killing of two children who were kidnapped on their way to school and within days the rescue of an abducted boy put the spotlight on child safety.

TWO recent cases of kidnapping of schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu have thrown up several questions relating to the safety and security of children in the State. The first of them was the gruesome killing of 10-year-old Muskan and her seven-year-old brother Hrithik on October 29 in Coimbatore. The prime accused in the case was shot dead in an alleged encounter on November 9 while he was being taken for interrogation. The children were thrown into a canal and drowned. Autopsy reports of the bodies indicated sexual assault of the girl and torture of the boy.

Close on the heels of the Coimbatore case came the abduction and subsequent release of 13-year-old R. Keerthivasan, a schoolboy in Chennai.

The abductions and murders evoked public concern over the vulnerability of children in a society driven by rapid but lopsided economic growth and a corresponding increase in crime. The issue found its echo in the State Assembly on November 9.

The two cases have paved the way for a meaningful debate, especially when the United Nations observes November 19 as World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

A wide range of issues have already come into sharp focus. Among them are the increasing number of incidents of kidnapping and child sexual abuse; sensitisation of parents, teachers, van operators and other stakeholders on ensuring safe transport of children to schools; implementation of the neighbourhood schools concept; increasing awareness of child rights among schoolchildren; and encouraging the use of public transport with a view to averting untoward incidents.

Hritik.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In both the cases, the accused were arrested without much delay. The cases were similar in many respects. The kidnapped children were known to the abductors; they were students of private schools; the parents were wealthy business persons; and the crime was executed in broad daylight. Yet, they had basic differences too.

Mohan alias Mohanraj alias Mohanakrishnan, a call-taxi driver, was the prime accused in the Coimbatore case. The police said he was under pressure to repay Rs.2 lakh he had borrowed from a lending agency and hit upon a plan to raise the amount through abduction for ransom.

He was aware of the children's movements since he had taken them to school earlier. When the children stepped out of their house on Rangiah Gowder Street in the textile town around 7-45 a.m. on October 29, he was waiting in a borrowed vehicle at the usual pick-up point. He hoodwinked the children by claiming that he had come instead of the regular driver. Manoharan, an accomplice, joined him at Angalakurichi near Pollachi.

The disappearance of the siblings came to light when the regular driver came to the spot and contacted the parents around 8 a.m. and later when the children were not found in the school. Following a complaint from the parents, the police came into the picture and frantically tried to track down the children. Enquiries with cab drivers enabled the police to identify the prime accused. But all their efforts to establish contact with the children failed as Mohanakrishnan had switched off his mobile.

The police waited, knowing that Mohanakrishnan would make a call. Eventually, he made a call to a friend from the mobile and this helped the police ascertain his hideout and nab the duo. They were charged under Sections 363 (abduction), 376 (sexual abuse) and 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code.

The duo confessed to having tortured the children and assaulted the girl sexually. They told the police that they failed in their attempt to make the children climb a hillock so that they could push them off it. They then made the children consume milk mixed with malachite green. Finally, the abductors pushed them into a canal of the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project while they were washing their hands after having food from their lunch boxes.

Mohanakrishnan (left) and his accomplice R. Manoharan, who were arrested for the abduction and murder of the siblings. Mohanakrishnan was killed in a police encounter on November 9.-K.ANANTHAN

Even before the public recovered from the shock of this incident, another abduction this time in Chennai was reported on November 1. Keerthivasan, son of a city-based businessman, was kidnapped at Anna Nagar by two persons when he was returning home from school in a car. After forcing the driver out, they sped away with the boy in the car. They then abandoned the vehicle near the Ambattur Industrial Estate, and took him in another vehicle.

According to police sources, Keerthivasan's family had received a kidnap threat over phone a few months ago. Police investigations then revealed that the call was made using a SIM card acquired using a fake address.

The kidnappers demanded Rs.3 crore as ransom. The Coimbatore incident put pressure on the police to act with utmost care to secure the safe release of the boy. The police played their cards well and in a meticulous operation outsmarted the abductors, who let off the boy after receiving a ransom of around Rs.1 crore on November 2. Leaving the boy in a car, the two helmet-wearing abductors escaped with the booty on a two-wheeler.

While the kidnappers surmised that they were off the hook, their calculations went wrong as the police had noted the registration number of their motorcycle; the piece of cloth they had covered it with fell off. The investigating team nabbed the duo at Anna Nagar, and also recovered the ransom they had collected. They were identified as R. Vijay Kumar, 26, an engineering graduate with a Master of Business Administration degree from a foreign university, and K. Prabhu, 29, a diploma holder in mechanical engineering. They were related to one of the managers employed by the victim's father in his business firm. The kidnap fiasco was a desperate attempt by the two unemployed graduates to raise funds to launch a business venture abroad.

Ensuring safety

The issue of ensuring safety to schoolchildren assumes great significance in the State where the student population from primary to high school levels is around 1.20 crore out of a total population of 6.21 crore. In the wake of the two cases, the Commissioners of Police of Chennai and Coimbatore, T. Rajendran and C. Sylendra Babu respectively, came out with several tips to ensure the safety of schoolchildren. Director of School Education P. Perumalsamy asked all school managements in the State to install surveillance cameras at the entrance to their institutions to monitor the movement of persons who drop and pick up children. Issues relating to the safety of schoolchildren would be reviewed at the periodic district-level meetings, he said.

But there is no dearth of guidelines and directives on guaranteeing the safety of schoolchildren. Apart from the orders of government departments concerned, courts have also given clear verdicts in this regard.

The Madras High Court in its landmark judgment on September 14 stressed the need for a special law to combat child sexual abuse. While upholding the 10-year rigorous imprisonment awarded to a physical training teacher by a fast-track court for the rape of a nine-year-old girl student in 2003, the High Court said, Such a heinous crime should be dealt with an iron hand. The court also expressed dismay at the rising number of child abuse cases in schools.

In another case of child abuse by a conductor of a school van in 1998, the Chennai (North) Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum awarded, in February 2003, Rs.3 lakh as compensation to the victim, who was molested and bitten all over. Earlier, the management of the private matriculation school had attempted to wash its hands off the matter by claiming that it could not be held responsible for the actions of its employee while a local court had merely imposed a fine of Rs.1,000 on the culprit after he confessed to the crime.

The Madras High Court in its order of July 26 in Dalmia Magnesite Corporation vs State of Tamil Nadu, referred to the Supreme Court order in M.C. Mehta vs Union of India (1997) on ensuring safe transport of schoolchildren.

Children of the Suguna RIP V Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Coimbatore paying homage to their two schoolmates on November 2.-K. ANANTHAN

According to State Crime Records Bureau data, the number of cases relating to crime against children has risen from 441 in 2007 to 666 in 2008, indicating a 51.02 per cent increase.

Educationists and child rights activists are of the view that whenever an untoward incident or mishap occurs, the State government, in typical knee-jerk fashion, resorts to ad hoc measures instead of opting for viable safeguard methods involving all stakeholders.

For instance, the government notified an order on September 14, 2004, in the wake of a fire at a private school in Kumbakonam in which 94 children died. Though it speaks of making suitable amendments to the Tamil Nadu Recognised Private Schools (Regulation) Rules, 1974 [under the relevant Act] to ensure absolute safety of children in schools in all respects, proper monitoring has not been done, the activists claim.

The government rehashed its guidelines on safety after a tragic event near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam on December 3, 2009 reckless driving had resulted in a nursery school van plunging into a pond and killing nine children and a teacher.

About 10 days after the mysterious death of a girl studying in a private matriculation school the body was found floating in a well on the school campus at Omalur in Salem district on November 18, 2006, the School Education Department of the State government announced that it would set up a complaint cell to enable schoolchildren to voice their problems ranging from corporal punishment to lack of drinking water to poor infrastructure. Despite the initial euphoria and media hype, it ended up as a token gesture, child rights activists said.

Chennai City Police Commissioner T. Rajendran with R. Keerthivasan, whom the police rescued from his kidnappers (below).-M. VEDHAN

Now, the State government has introduced special buses for school students in 12 select routes in Chennai from November 1. But school and college students in many rural and semi-urban areas have to travel on the rooftop of buses owing to inadequate transport facilities. In some places, they have to cross rivers in small boats or coracles to reach their schools.

Vidya Reddy, Executive Director of Tulir - Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation, said the Coimbatore incident reminded her of the Nithari killings of 2005-06 (in which Moninder Singh Pandher and his domestic help Surinder Koli were arrested for the sexual assault and killing of about 19 children in Nithari village in Noida near Delhi). When a child is murdered, it is a terrible thing, but why should we wait till that culmination point? she asked.

The case only stressed the need for concerted efforts to plug the loopholes and foster the culture of safety, she said. The School Education Department should have a comprehensive child protection policy that includes aspects such as a behavioural code of conduct for teaching and non-teaching staff while dealing with children, action to be taken in the event of any violation of the code, training in terms of child protection measures and necessary protocol in the event of any allegation of child abuse. She said the stranger-danger theory is played up too much even though most of the abductions in the State have been perpetrated by persons known to the families of the victims. She said Tulir in its research in 2005 on the prevalence and dynamics of child sexual abuse among schoolchildren in Chennai exploded myths such as boys do not get abused and child sexual abuse happens only to children from lower socio-economic families.

Refuting the argument that if parents opted for private school vans, the onus was on them and not on the school managements, P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System, said: The responsibility regarding the safety of the student begins the moment the child steps out of the house in school uniform. Parents choose a school that not only provides quality education or good environment but also ensures the safety of their children in all aspects.

He stressed that schoolchildren should be familiarised with the provisions of the Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, which prohibits any form of abuse. The State Platform had made a representation in this regard to the Directorate of Teacher Education Research and Training when it was preparing the common syllabus. Maintenance of the socio-economic background of each student in the school records was also important, he added.

Gajendra Babu said that some schools had installed surveillance cameras in classrooms; he wanted them to focus on suspicious and strange movement at the entrance and around the school.

V. Venkatachalam, Dean of the Vel's group of schools, said that many of the problems relating to transportation and safety of schoolchildren could be solved if the government implemented the neighbourhood school system with common syllabus. Venkatachalam favoured the issuance of identity cards for parents and guardians picking up children from school.

Vijay Kumar and Prabhu.-V. GANESAN

S. Somasundaram, former Principal of the Singarampillai Matriculation Higher Secondary School, said the installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in schools could be a deterrent. When schools hired private vehicles to transport students, the managements should take the responsibility for them, he added.

V.R. Devika, cultural activist, said that children should be taught about the risk factors so that they remain alert. She wanted school managements and parent-teacher associations to evolve a viable escort system so as to avoid untoward incidents such as abduction.

With schools providing their own transport for only around 50 per cent of students, parents have to depend on private vehicles. There are nearly 6,000 private school vans and several hundred autorickshaws transporting children in the State. There have been complaints of rash and negligent driving, besides overloading of autorickshaws and vans. Vaira Sekar, president of the Tamil Nadu Federation of School Van Owners Welfare Association, said members of the organisation would cooperate with the police in maintaining a comprehensive registry of drivers and helpers.

At the school level, he said, review meetings were held every week and members of the association were cautioned against negligent driving and misbehaviour. K. Raghu, secretary of the central Chennai unit of the association, said pilot projects had been initiated in some city schools to ensure safe transportation of children.

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