The ongoing case in Norway about an Indian couple arrested for abusing their son has revived a nightmare for Sagarika Bhattacharya who used to live in that country but is now back in India. Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya's children, Abhigyan and Aishwariya, had been taken away by Norway's child protection agency last May, allegedly because they felt the mother was unfit to care for her children. This April, Norway gave the children back, not to her but to her estranged husband's brother who lives in Bengal's Burdwan district.
Now Sagarika is fighting a new battle to get her children back. But she is getting nowhere. The Burdwan Child Welfare Committee or CWC has ordered that the children be given to her. But ignorance about the CWC's authority and administrative apathy have thrust Sagarika into a new nightmare. Her estranged husband Anurup is still in Norway but plans to move court in India.
Aishwariya, two, and Abhigyan, four, have been living with their paternal uncle Arunabhash at Kulti, about 250 kilometres from Kolkata. Their paternal grandparents live in the same house. Ever since they returned to India in April, Sagarika was visiting them - something she claims they were very reluctant about. She also claims that they were not cared for properly. So in June she applied to the Child Welfare Committee, Burdwan, seeking custody of her children.
Since June, CWC visited the children several times at their Kulti home and interacted with the caregivers, but concluded that the fostercarer was not doing justice. CWC's main contentions were: the actual caregiver of the children was a 16-year-old untrained domestic help. There was no effort to get the children the medical attention that they need nor special educators nor enable them to socialise with other children their age.
"The children, till we last saw them, were not okay. They need special educators, special management, occupational therapy which had been prescribed by their own doctors. But that has not been maintained. So we are very worried about the children," said CWC member Shikha Aditya Sarkar.
CWC asked Sagarika to undergo medical and psychological tests. Sagarika did so at a government hospital in Kolkata and got a clean chit.
On November 8, after it got Sagarika's medical reports, CWC ruled that the foster care was inadequate and that the children be given to Sagarika. But the order fell on deaf ears. When the CWC sent an NGO to take custody of the children, the Bhattacharya family and the police refused to cooperate, claiming it was an international case.
"It's a nightmare for me," says Sagarika who was very happy with the CWC order but then totally shattered when the children were not handed back to her. "I am a mother... I sacrificed my whole life for my children. I know very well that I and my children were scapegoats for Barne Varne and the Bhattacharya family. So still now I'm not getting justice."
The CWC wrote to India's additional solicitor general Indira Jaisingh for clarifications. She wrote back saying this was not an international case and CWC, a quasi-judicial body, is authorised to take action. But the Bhattacharyas plan to go to court.
"CWC can give recommendations whatever they wish but the ultimate decision will be taken by court. And we firmly believe - Norway believed, I believe, everybody believed - that the children's best interest lies with the brother as the custodian and they stay with our family," said the children's father Anurup Bhattacharya who is still in Norway.
Initially the CWC was a little stumped by the developments and the refusal of the authorities to help. "The Juvenile Justice Act gives the CWC the authority to take decisions in the interest of the welfare of children," said Shikha Aditya Sarkar, "but how our orders are to be implemented is a little hazy. Also, the administration is not clear about our authority. So we cannot force them to act on our behalf."
Now, the CWC has submitted all papers relating to the Bhattacharya case to the District Child Protection Society which is headed by the district magistrate. He, in turn, has sent the papers on to the principal secretary of the state's Child Welfare Department who was not available for comment.
But as the parents prepare for legal battle, what's clear is, India's child welfare committee just doesn't have the teeth that Norway's child protection agency has. Norway's child protection agency has the power to take away children from their parents. But India's CWC has no authority, it seems, to restore the children to the parents they deem fit to care for them.