Ensuring legal help, counselling, protection, and compensation is part of a new police initiative.
Child sexual abuse cases have shown an increase in Tamil Nadu, according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics. The State ranks fourth in the country for crimes against children, particularly girls, and the NCRB data show that 4,469 cases were filed under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO Act) in the State in 2021, up from 3,090 cases in 2020 Child sexual abuse cases have shown an increase in Tamil Nadu, according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics. The State ranks fourth in the country for crimes against children, particularly girls, and the NCRB data show that 4,469 cases were filed under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act in the State in 2021, up from 3,090 cases in 2020.
Many of these cases have been pending for years in Special Mahila Courts, which also hear POCSO cases, and the conviction rate in such cases has been low. Only recently were judgments issued in cases filed in 2014.
The majority of the survivors are from poor rural households whose parents migrate to far-off places in search of work leaving their children in the care of aged grandparents or older siblings. Most sexual predators are neighbors and relatives.
For instance, the seven-year-old girl who was burnt to death in July after being raped lived with her grandmother in Theni while her mother worked as a daily laborer in Salem. The girl was playing near the anganwadi where her grandmother worked as an ayah when she was abducted and sexually assaulted by a 20-year-old neighbour. He then set her ablaze.
She was taken to the Government Rajaji Medical College Hospital in Madurai, 75 kilometers away, but died a month later. In her dying declaration to the Judicial Magistrate, Bodinaickanur, Theni district, she named the neighbour, who was then arrested under Sections 9(m) and 10 of the POCSO Act read with Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code. He was also detained under the Goondas Act that effectively prevented him from seeking bail. Of late, the Goondas Act has been invoked in such cases to prevent bail to the accused.
In another incident, near Andipatti in Theni, a 16-year-old girl with impaired speech and hearing was raped by two neighborhood men, one of them a juvenile. Her widowed mother and younger brother were away at the time of the crime.
Theni accounts for 153 of the more than 500 cases registered under the POCSO Act this year in the 11 southern districts of Tamil Nadu. The police in these districts are alive to the problem and have recently adopted a conscientious way of prioritizing such cases while ensuring a caring and civilized approach towards the survivors. The initiative, which came from South Zone Inspector General of Police Asra Garg, goes beyond the police’s enforcement mandate and involves a comprehensive bundle of assistance that includes legal intervention, sustained counselling, prolonged protection, and rehabilitation of survivors and their families.
A charter of 15 commandments guides the actions of the special cells established for the purpose in every district. Once an incident comes to their notice, the cells take charge of protection of the survivor and her family, ensure immediate medical examination of the survivor at a government hospital, and arrange counseling and consultation for her psychological well-being. A female police officer records a statement at the child’s convenience.
The cell also provides assistance as recommended by child welfare committees and, above all, ensures protection for the survivor from the accused, including during trial.
“We have been creating awareness among girls and their parents about such incidents of violence while simultaneously pursuing the cases legally,” said P. Usha, Theni District All Women Police Station Inspector, a member of the district’s special team.
On the legal front, the police keep a close watch on the progress of the cases, besides assisting survivors to get interim and final compensation under the Tamil Nadu Victim Compensation Fund for POCSO cases. “Each policeman/policewoman in these teams in each district [in the south zone] is sensitised and works in tandem with legal officers, counsellors, and district child health officers to maximize the benefits of our intervention,” Garg told front lines,
“We ensure that the survivors and their family members are well aware of their legal rights,” he said.
Many criminals get away because the girls are from poor and socially disadvantaged families who are unaware of legal procedures. “The initiative helps complainants follow up on the cases, which we hope will result in an enhanced conviction rate, instilling fear among perpetrators and paving the way for an eventual reduction of crimes against children,” Garg said.
The procedures involve a printed Form A, issued to the complainant, containing the first information report (FIR) and other administrative details, and a Form B that has an Initial Assessment Report by the Investigating Officer. Within 24 hours of filing the FIR, the Form B is sent to the child welfare committee.
“All this is done without compromising the secrecy of the complainants and their families,” Garg said. “The child welfare committee provides counseling to the survivors. We help them get all assistance such as interim and final compensation through courts without delay. Compensation in four cases has been obtained in Theni district alone, and about 100 cases are pending before various courts in other southern districts. We are tracking them all.
In July, the Theni Special Court for Women awarded an interim compensation of Rs.3 lakh to the family of the seven-year-old victim in Theni. The court ordered that Rs.2 lakh be paid immediately to meet expenses. The speech and hearing impaired survivor was given an interim compensation of Rs.1 lakh.
Theni Superintendent of Police Praveen Dongare told front lines that they were able to get compensation in 11 days. “This is an initiative that plugs loopholes in the system. During court hearings, we inform the survivors or complainants via WhatsApp or SMS. Whenever the accused moves the bail petition, the complainant’s parents and families are alerted in writing about the date of the bail hearing. This enables them to appear in person and oppose bail, giving them a say in deciding the bail plea,” he said.
In a POCSO case involving two juveniles in Thoothukudi district, bail for the male juvenile was denied after the Thoothukudi Rural Assistant Commissioner of Police AV Chandeesh appeared before the Juvenile Justice Board and argued against it on the grounds that investigation was ongoing and the survivor’s statement had to be recorded. The survivor’s mother was briefed, counseled, and brought before the Board as per 439 (1A) of the Criminal Procedure Code when the bail petition was heard.
The initial response to the “Garg Initiative”, as law enforcers in the south zone call it, appears to be positive. It has started showing encouraging results in the districts of Theni, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Thoothukudi, and Kanyakumari, where it is being implemented on an experimental basis. “Since it is working well, we have decided to expand it to other districts in the south zone, fine-tuning it further with some modifications,” Garg said.
Vidya Reddy of Tulir, Center for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, a non-governmental organization that has been playing a proactive role in intervention and rehabilitation processes in cases of child sexual abuse, told front lines that the move was not just a police station’s usual “ticking the box” procedure without thought or sensitivity. The initiative, she agreed, acknowledged survivors and their families as central to the delivery of justice. “Enabling them is a critical aspect of their journey toward healing,” she said.
Reddy also pointed to the importance of recognizing the role of other stakeholders and the assistance given to families to pursue the cases and see them through. “The initiative not only disseminates information about their entitlements, including the support persons who can help them, but ensures that the complainant and the families know their rights regarding bail applications as well as how to apply for compensation,” she said.
The police in the 11 southern districts of Tamil Nadu recently adopted a conscientious way of prioritizing POCSO cases while ensuring a caring and civilized approach towards the survivors.
The initial response to the “Garg Initiative” is positive. It has started showing encouraging results in the districts of Theni, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Thoothukudi, and Kanyakumari, where it is being implemented on an experimental basis.
The initiative goes beyond the police’s enforcement mandate and involves a comprehensive bundle of assistance that includes legal intervention, sustained counselling, prolonged protection, and rehabilitation of survivors and their families.