New Delhi: In 2018, it ordered safety audits of children’s homes after the Muzaffarpur and Deoria shelter home scandals; the following year, it moved against increased online traffic on child pornography, and, now, the Netflix row.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) — seen by many as yet another sleepy, ‘toothless’ commission — has routinely been making headlines.
Its latest move against Netflix came over its show Bombay Begums for the “inappropriate portrayal of children”. The NCPCR on 12 March had issued a notice to Netflix, asking it to take down the show on the grounds that it could “pollute young minds” and lead to abuse and exploitation of children.
The move has drawn flak from critics who say the government is trying to dictate terms to artistic content through the NCPCR, which is a statutory body under the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development.
This is not a one-off, though.
The child rights body has in the past been criticised for being a ‘toothless’ organisation that acts at the behest of the central government.
However, its chief Priyank Kanoongo dismissed the criticism and said the NCPCR doesn’t have any political agenda.
“Showing a 14-year-old child taking drugs is against Indian laws. Portraying adolescent girls as those who circulate photos of their private parts is also against the law and will not be tolerated,” Kanoongo, chairman, NCPCR, told ThePrint.
“If they teach children how to smoke, and photograph their private parts then it’s a question of a child’s right to life and survival. We are ready to go to any extent to follow child rights,” he said.
What NCPCR does
Set up in 2007, the NCPCR’s mandate is “to ensure that all Laws, Policies, Programmes, and Administrative Mechanisms are in consonance with the Child Rights perspective as enshrined in the Constitution of India and also the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”. It derives its powers from the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights (CPCR) Act, 2005.
The commission has the powers to examine and review laws made for child rights, publish reports, enquire and hold hearings on violations of child rights, but the government is not legally bound to accept its recommendations, findings or reports. This is why the body is often dismissed as toothless, with no real authority to effect change.
Nevertheless, the NCPCR often still acts within its powers to raise issues it deems violative of child rights.
The NCPCR has also repeatedly flagged the issue of carcinogenic substances in Johnson & Johnson’s baby products.
In the past, after a Kolkata student committed suicide, it had asked the then human resource development ministry (now Ministry of Education) in 2010 to direct all states to adhere to the commission’s guidelines on corporal punishment in schools.
In 2017, it welcomed the information ministry’s ministry’s decision to not broadcast condom ads between 6 am and 10 pm.
The NCPCR shot to the limelight in 2018 after it revised guidelines for TV shows for child artistes after a controversy involving singer Papon who kissed a minor girl during a reality show he was judging.
In past few years, it also conducted safety audits of child care centres in states in the wake of the 2018 Muzaffarpur and Deoria shelter home cases and the 2020 Bhopal sexual abuse case.
“When I took charge in 2018, children’s homes across the country had lost credibility. We issued notices to 7,000 homes, conducted inspections, made reports and circulated them to DMs (district magistrates) who then visited over 2,000 homes that needed re-inspection … and they submitted reports to us as well,” Kanoongo said.
“Several NGOs that run these shelter homes have been found to run [religious] conversion camps in the name of shelter homes. So we are cracking down on them. We are also trying to repatriate children in these homes with their families,” he added.
However, the commission’s order to eight states to send children back to their families drew the ire of the Supreme Court last year. The top court questioned the commission’s order in October 2020, saying sending children back to their home makes them prone to domestic abuse.
The commission has also been accused of acting on the orders of the central government, especially in the wake of its recent actions, which include not just its notice to Netflix but for raids on activist Harsh Mander’s NGO to allegedly check if children had participated in the anti-CAA protests.
‘NCPCR not toothless, no political agenda’
Kanoongo denies that the commission lacks teeth and follows the Centre’s political agenda.
“The Commission is not toothless at all. We have quasi-judicial powers, we have the powers of a civil court. We can approach courts as well to protect child rights and we can directly register cases in court, issue summons and give reports to the Parliament as well,” he said.
Part of the criticism against NCPCR stems from the fact that Kanoongo is a BJP leader who has been associated with the RSS’ Yuva Morcha as well as Swadeshi Jagran Manch as a student in Madhya Pradesh and afterwards. He has been serving as a member of the NCPCR since 2015 and was appointed chairman in 2018.
Kanoongo said his political background has no bearing on how the NCPCR functions.
“Gandhi had written about child rights in all his works. We don’t need to see the problems of Indian children through a Western lens,” he told ThePrint, adding, “Those who are saying that the NCPCR has been saffronised have forgotten that United Nations Child Rights Commission (UNCRC) rights are enshrined in India’s Constitution.
“India’s POCSO Act takes this a step further and says that even viewing child pornography is prohibited. Shelter homes are being used as garb to force children to participate in anti-CAA protests, they are being funded by international organisations that are banned in many countries and even run terror organisations. This cannot continue in India. We will go to any extent to protect child rights, and adopt family-centric approaches to protect their rights,” he further said.
‘Commission has power, but not enough to implement changes’
Experts ThePrint spoke to said that while the commission has the powers to work for child rights, a lot more needs to be done.
“NCPCR has the power to investigate, establish fact-finding committees, make recommendations and seek action-taken reports from the government concerned. Its authority comes from the uncompromising stand it takes on the protection of children’s rights. It should not be an extension of the Ministry of Women and Child Development,” said Shantha Sinha, child rights activist and former chairperson of the NCPCR.
She added that in order for the NCPCR to enjoy autonomy, its finances must not be dependent on the ministry.
Along with financial independence, former heads of the body also said that the CPCR Act, 2005, needs to be revised to make it sensitive to the needs of children today.
“The issues children face today are not the same that they faced then. Whether it’s cyber crimes or even the POCSO Act (2012) or the new Juvenile Justice Act (2015),” said Stuti Kacker, former chairperson of the commission.
“The commission can affect change. It just depends on how much effort you put in to raise your voice for child rights,” she added.
However, child rights advocates point out that the commission is hindered at the implementation level and not by the powers it has.
“The NCPCR is a statutory body and has enough powers under the Act but finally it’s the implementation, which is at the level of district, which needs to be improved. The local bodies like Child Welfare Committees and District Child Protection Units needs to be strengthened with close monitoring by the District administration,” said Deepak Kumar, former chief, Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA).
“This issue is likely to be addressed by the JJ Act Amendment Bill tabled in the Parliament. The DMs [district magistrates] would be further empowered and made responsible for the implementation of the Child Protection,” Kumar added.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)