Quaint beaches, old temples with intricate carvings and sculptures, European cafes – these are the things one is reminded of, whenthe ancient town of Mahabalipuram is mentioned. However, behind this façade lies an unknown and infamous town, which could be a hub for child sexual abuse at children’s homes, especially by foreigners that travel here for sex tourism.
Vidya Reddy, director of TULIR, an NGO which works for the prevention of child abuse, says “There are quite a few children’s homes in Mahabalipuram. Why there are so many orphanages in a tourist place is a question no official wants to answer.”
Mahabalipuram has had a history of pedophiles visiting the place for sexually abusing children. A news report in November 2008 claimed that the orphanages in Mahabalipuram could be hotbeds for child abuse. In the following year, a Dutchman named Will Heum aka John Williams was arrested in Mahabalipuram for uploading child pornography onto the internet. He had been previously arrested in 2002 over allegations of sexual abuse of children in the orphanage,he ran on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram in Poonjeri.
“He [Will Heum] came to India on a visiting visa and overstayed because he found Mahabalipuram to be a very convenient hideout for his activities. He set up an orphanage in Poonjeri village and ran it for eight years. The allegation was that Will Heum used to drug the children and assault them sexually.” Write P.M. Nair and SankerSen in their book Trafficking in Women and Children in India.
In a more recent case last year, a British Airwayspilot,Bartle Frere is facing charges for sexually abusing boys in the UK and India at Bournemouth Crown Court. He used to regularly take flights to Chennai and spend his rest days around the city. He claimed that the families in villages had become his friends because of his passion for photography of both children and adults.
In 2014, the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board issued closure notices for 30 orphanages in the state for flouting rules and not following regulations. The officials however refused to give the number of orphanages closed specifically in Mahabalipuram in the past few years.
Murugan, a resident of the townwho has been running a scooter rental business for the past 15 years in Mahabalipuram claims that there are orphanages which are seasonal. “We see a lot new children’s home come up every year all of a sudden just before the tourist season starts. They close down once when all the tourists go back. They bring in children from nearby villages by paying their parents a small amount and put them in the orphanages. They even pick beggars from Chennai and put them in these orphanages,” he says.
He claims that the police turn a blind eye to these orphanages and no one gives them much attention as they close down very quickly. Not surprisingly, the police said that they had no information about any such orphanages. They also failed to provide the number of licensed children’s homes the town has.
A fruit vendor just outside the famous Decent of the Ganges monument, on the condition of anonymity said that the seasonal orphanage business in Mahabalipuram is an open secret to all the residents. “Big and influential people are involved and a lot of money is made in this business,” he said.
While he said that he had no knowledge of incidents where the children were abused sexually, Murugan mentioned that there were isolated cases where he heard about sexual abuse. “They are very rare but these orphanages which let the children loose once the tourist season is over are very common. Something needs to be done about them. We don’t want a bad name for our town, which in turn will reduce tourism and also affect our businesses” he said.
According to both Murugan and the vendor the owners of the orphanage cash in on the sympathy aspect of the foreigners. For most of the tourists, deprivation is a fascinating phenomenon and some of the online tourist checklists on the things to do India include “visit an orphanage”
The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000(amended in 2006) instructed the State Governments to establish one or two Child Welfare Committees (CWC) in every district of the country. The CWC should consist of a chairman and 4 members. They have be doctors, advocates or social workers. At least one of the members should be a woman. The CWC has the same powers as a metropolitan magistrate or a judicial magistrate of the first class.
They are responsible for the care and protection of any child (below 18 years) in the district. A child can be brought before the committee and the CWC is responsible for the rehabilitation of the child. They also conduct surprise inspections at both private and public run children’s homes in the district. They are also consulted by the Social Welfare Board on issues of Child Rights.
To setup a new orphanage, both the Social Welfare Board and the CWC have to give no objections and grant them registration after they have checked all the facilities at the orphanage. The building where the proposed orphanage is going to be established should have no objections from the Tahsildar. It should also pass the building safety norms set by the CWC and also have the sanitation standards mentioned by the CWC. They children should be segregated on based of gender and age groupand put in separate homes.
Mahabalipuram falls under the Kanchipuram district, whose CWC is in the town of Chengalpattu, 35 kms away. The Chengalpattu CWC meets thrice a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at the Government Children’s Home for Boys on GST Road.
It is chaired by Dr. R. N. Manikandan and members are S. Desingu, Dr. G. Renuga, ShantaKumari, and Zaheeruddin. Though they refused to furnish officials details of the children’s homes in Mahabalipuramthey talked about the challenges they face in dealing with them.
“Illegal orphanages are very hard to keep track of. They change their name every year and they publicize though word of mouth. They also lure foreigners from the beach and also though internet travel forums”, said S. Desingu of the CWC.
“Mahabalipuram is not our only concern. We also have a similar problem in the temple town of Kanchipuram. There have been reports of brothels which house children and since it is an underground network, it is very hard to curb them,” he added.
Dr. S. Renuga who has been working for the rights of the child since 10 years claims that European tourists have been able to evade the law here because it is not as stringent as the western countries. “They [foreign pedophiles] visit the third world countries like India, Thailand and Philippines and exploit the poverty of the children here. International laws and extradition policies between the countries make it very easy for them to escape the punishment.” She said.
Following the norms put up by the CWC and the Social Welfare Board, J.D. Glaxon, managing director of ‘Hope for future charitable’ trust had to close down the boys’ wing of his home two years back. He has been running the orphanage for last eight years, and takes care of 20 girl children.
“Some years ago, there were occurrence of abuse cases, after 2008 report of Times of India the CWC and Social Welfare Board got alerted and they did inspections of these homes. They closed down most of the bogus orphanages; however, I think there is still some working. CWC is doing regular inspections, once in a month”, he said.
When asked about impact of such activities on funding, he said, “My orphanage doesn’t depend on individual donations. Funds come from German-based Nandri Foundation, who trusts our work.” However, on checking the orphanage’s website, it is clearly mentioned that any kind of donation is accepted there.
Though the orphanage is registered, there has been some inconsistency in his words, and also he did not mention anything about his orphanage in Chennai.
Little Angels, three lanes away from Glaxon’s orphanage next to the Church, the director there did not let us inside the home; however, she talked through the gate.
Rita Maria, her name, said, “Our home has been running from last 15 years without any discrepancy, and for last three years we have only boys in our centre, following the norms of CWC. Currently, 17 boys live here”.
When asked the same questions as asked to Glaxon, she said, “We don’t believe in individual funding. We are completely funded by the Seagull restaurant located in Othavadai Street, five minutes’ walk from the beach.”Rita’s husband, Stephen Raj, owns the restaurant.
Though she claimed that they don’t encourage foreigners into the orphanage, the boys peeping at us through gate were wearing over-sized foreign brand T-shirts and shorts.
Sinai, one of the oldest orphanage centres in Mahabalipuram, located in the heart of the town opposite to five-star hotel RaddisonBlu, takes care of 20 boys. The orphanage has trustees in Germany and France, and according to the neighbours the orphanage has been working well.
Elizabeth Annabai, the warden of the home, said, “There had been many orphanage centres in the area some years ago. For earning easy money, people use to put their agents in the nearby villages to get children. These bogus orphanages used to function for the tourist season, and later were closed sending the children back home. Our home has never been indulged in such activities.”
“We believe in service of humanity. These kids don’t have anyone to look after, and it becomes our duty to take care of them, that is the vision our founder”, she added.
We requested of meeting the founder but she refused and said that the founder of the centre has been ailing due to old age. According to CWC, he has sent a letter to the committee saying that he wants it to take care of the home after his death.
CWC has discussed to transfer the children of Sinai to other orphanage centres. They are going to decide that after conducting a survey of the centres in coming months.
CWC claims to be working hard on this area because of complaints from the locals, who feel their locality is defamed because of some bogus orphanages.
“However, there have been decline in such activities, still no one can say, when they will emerge again. The authorities got to be strict in such cases. Not only that, they should inspect the facilities and space in the old orphanages from time to time”, said Elizabeth.