In a small lane off Hyderabad's Gayatri Nagar in Boduppal, stands a tall duplex house, spread out over a large plot of land. The gate is locked and a small manhole right outside the entrance is filled to the brim with sewage, with a lot of it leaking out onto the streets.
Less than 24 hours ago, a minor girl was in this same manhole, cleaning it. In a video of the incident that surfaced, a girl in a red dress could be seen taking out muck in a mug and pouring it out, even as an adult could be heard in the background issuing instructions to her to 'remove it quickly'.
This is 'AGAPE Orphan Home', where real-life monsters made HIV positive children clean a manhole, and are now brazenly defending it.
A day later, the entire house is locked and deserted.
‘Children Treated Like Slaves’
The orphanage consists of several hundred children, spread out over a few buildings in the area. This particular building is a girls’ home, where a majority of the children are HIV positive.
And while the video of a little girl cleaning a manhole was frightening, local residents say that this was not the only violation that they have seen.
Sathyam, local shopkeeperI have seen the children sweep the floor and wash the dishes, but this was the first time I saw them enter the manhole. That is not acceptable.
Others make serious allegations.
“They are treated like slaves. I’ve seen the children being beaten up and thrashed. They sweep the floor, wash the dishes, and do all kinds of labour work. Even those clothes that you see hung on the roof, are washed by them,” says Bheema Nayak, a longtime resident.
"Some of them are even made to carry water cans from one hostel to another. They are given a trolley, and they have to push it in this heat. I can only imagine the condition of the poor children," says Sadiq, who lives in one of the apartments opposite the children's home.
"I have seen them being treated horribly. All of us have even approached them many times, and questioned them about it, but they brush it off. These are children that need care," Nayak adds.
But if so many of the residents knew that the children were mistreated, why did no one file a complaint before?
Orphanage Authorities Brazen It Out
Presently, a car pulls in outside the home and several young girls disembark. The sight of a reporter makes a woman rush the children inside, even before they have an opportunity to speak.
While the warden and supervisor have been arrested by the police, the authorities at the orphanage have remained brazenly defiant, even after the incident, calling it a 'small' mistake.
Caretaker, brought in to replace the two taken to police stationWe will admit that a small mistake happened. However, the girls are only very eager to do their own work. Even if we tell them not to do, they don’t listen.
Refusing to be identified, she added, "We treat them like our own children. All these allegations are false. We even have a big washing machine where the clothes are washed."
However, when this reporter asked to see the washing machine, or asked if it was possible to meet the person who kept the place clean, he was denied permission.
The girls were also told to 'stay upstairs' and not step out.
‘It Was a Small Manhole’
In a shocking display of insensitivity, the caretaker also went on to add, “The manhole is also a very small one. It hardly comes up to the hip for children. I don’t know why people are making this such an issue.”
"It is being blown out of proportion. It is the mistake of one or two individuals that is bringing disrepute to the entire organisation. We treat our children with great care. I even serve them food personally, and make sure that I'm approachable," says P Biswas, a supervisor at one of the hostels.
Scapegoats and Straws
They also seem to have found a convenient scapegoat – a woman who reportedly joined the organisation 10 days ago.
All officials from the organisation have largely laid the blame on the warden, Prajawathi, who, they say, joined them just over a week ago.
"Even the supervisor came only after the incident. It's all her fault," the caretaker alleges.
The authorities are grasping at straws and even willing to paint their criminal action as a communal issue. The video was said to be shot by a local BJP leader, who was in the colony for a wedding, and the authorities at the orphanage, are predominantly Christians.
Biswas suggests that this could have been a reason for the BJP leader to take notice of the issue.
Who Runs This Orphanage?
According to the orphanage's website, it was established by Lynne Guhman-Voggu, who moved to India in 2000 from Massachusetts and married an Indian physician named Dr Ratnam Voggu.
The website also adds that AGAPE started its first children’s home exclusively for AIDS- affected/infected orphans in June 2004. Presently there are six children’s homes – four for HIV-affected children (children whose parents or family members have/had AIDS), and two for HIV-infected children in Uppal.
The organisation also works at an international level. There is also a school owned by the organisation where the children get their education.
TNM spoke to children at the school, and the other hostels, and they said that they were satisfied with the way they were treated.
However, not a single girl from the hostel, where the incident occurred, was allowed to speak to the media.
Abuse is rampant, but where’s the child rights commission?
Child abuse is rampant in Telangana, and this is not even the first such case this month.
In the second week of April, students at Shivarampally ZP High School in Ranga Reddy district were forced by their headmaster to indulge in hard labour to demolish an old compound wall.
The headmaster, K Kistaiah, allegedly made girl students clean water tanks and toilets at the school. However, despite repeated complaints by parents, Kistaiah continued to force the children to work. Despite this, Telangana’s State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) has been defunct for two months now. The Telangana unit of the SCPCR had only one member, Achyuta Rao, whose term ended on 19 February.
Achyuta RaoThough it exists on paper, there is no functioning commission right now. There should be no gap in its functioning, as it is a legal body and deals with very sensitive cases.
"It's a constitutional body, and action has to be taken. Cases of violence and abuse against children are only piling up, and this is a direct and very unfortunate violation of child rights," he added.
(This story was originally published in The News Minute)