NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - Survivors of a particularly grim corner of India's welfare system have been awarded thousands of dollars in compensation, a national human rights body announced this week.
More than four dozen former residents of a homeless shelter for girls in north India endured horrific conditions; many were sexually assaulted.
Shelters for women and girls, which typically house victims of domestic abuse or sex trafficking, along with those who have run away from home or been kicked out by their families, are notoriously overcrowded, squalid and often dangerous.
But the case involving the shelter in the north Indian state of Bihar, which paid the compensation, was particularly striking because of the number of victims.
Over a period of years, 34 of them were raped by shelter employees and officials of the state welfare department, according to police. At least one was as young as 10; the oldest was 19.
An independent auditor's 2018 report revealing the scope of the abuse at the shelter, in the city of Muzaffarpur, prompted national outrage. Federal investigators opened an inquiry that resulted in the conviction of 19 people, including the shelter's director, Brajesh Thakur.
In 2020, they were found guilty of offences ranging from negligence of duty to gang rape. Twelve of the defendants, including Thakur, received life sentences.
It is not the first time that states have compensated victims of sexual abuse at government-licensed shelters, but it is the largest case so far, in the number of victims and the size of the payouts.
It signals a partial reckoning with the government's responsibility amid an epidemic of sexual violence in India, even as other high-profile cases are prompting demands for judicial reform.
The same year that the Muzaffarpur case surfaced, the nation's Supreme Court established national guidelines for government compensation to other victims of sexual violence in the state's care.
All of the 49 girls who had been living in the shelter in 2018 received compensation, as had been the recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission, an autonomous body that opened its own investigation into the case.
They were awarded US$4,000 (S$5,420) to US$12,000 apiece, according to a statement released this week by the commission.
The abuse was uncovered in 2018 during the Bihar government's first independent audit of its social welfare institutions.
The Muzaffarpur shelter, which housed runaways and other destitute girls picked up by police in Bihar, was in Thakur's family compound, next to his three-storey home and his father's printing press.
Residents were kept on the windowless top floor of a decrepit building. Windows on the lower floors had bars on them.
It was one of many such shelters outsourced by the Bihar government to private contractors. The auditor, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, reported that abuse was rampant throughout the state's shelters but singled out the Thakur one as particularly bad.
It was notable for "carrying out sexual violence on the girls, all of a tender age and from marginalised backgrounds, in the name of punishment and discipline," the audit said. "The girls reported that they were molested by the male staff on a regular basis."
The auditors also noted that conditions at the shelter were "extremely deplorable," that the residents were locked in their wards except for meals and that they had no access to open space or opportunities for recreation.
The shelter opened in 2013, but it is not clear whether conditions there were better earlier in its history.
Many former residents testified in court that they were routinely raped and physically assaulted by shelter staff as well as by child welfare department officials. They described being beaten with sticks or scalded with hot water for such offences as asking for food or resisting sexual abuse.
Among the state welfare officials convicted in the case was Rosy Rani, an assistant director, who was accused of failing to notify police or in any other way responding to the victims' complaints.
She served a six-month prison sentence and is now contesting the termination of her government job.
After the audit, a state welfare department officer filed a complaint with police. Protesters demonstrated in Patna, Bihar's capital, and in New Delhi. Thirteen welfare officers were suspended, and the state's social welfare minister was forced to resign.
The victims, none of whom could be reached for comment this week, scattered after the Muzaffarpur shelter was closed when the trial began. (It was later demolished.)
Three of them went to another shelter for women and girls run by a Christian charity in Patna. There, a 16-year-old victim who provided testimony to police also spoke to The New York Times in 2018.
"Brajesh sir raped me. Repeatedly. He would rape me twice, sometimes thrice a week. If I dared resist, I would be beaten up black and blue," said the girl, whom Indian law prohibits from being identified.