The land is situated next to ‘elite’ Poona Club Golf Course. The government will appoint an administrator and begin sending children to other homes
The trustees and the director of the Save Our Soul (SOS) Children’s Village (SOS Balgram) in Pune have yet to receive any official directive of its closure from the Maharashtra government. However, when former children of the orphanage, invoked Right to Information (RTI) Act and procured a recently written letter by a section officer of women and welfare department, they were in a rude shock. The letter directs Commissioner Rajendra Chavan to begin proceedings to close Pune’s SOS Balgram, which houses over 160 children of various ages between 5 and 18 years, shift them to other remand homes, and most curiously, explore the possibility of reclaiming the land back to the department.
In a letter issued on 22nd August, which was procured under RTI, a few days back, the signatory who is not even the chief of the department, has ordered the Commissioner, Women and Child Welfare department to appoint an administrator and that, under no condition, should the custody of children be given to the present trustees of SOS Balgram.
The SOS Balgram controversy, which was at its peak in latter half of 2013, was because of the state government’s unusual stance of closing the unique orphanage, which runs in a family-like fashion, with ‘mothers’ staying with 9 or 10 children in each of the cottages, spread over nine acres. The elite Poona Club Golf Course shares a common boundary wall with this orphanage, leading to the suspicion that it was vested interest at the highest level that is interested in usurping the prime land. Moneylife had run a series of articles on this issue. The reason given by the minister of women and child welfare, Varsha Gaikwad were two incidents, one of molestation and another of a death of a nine-year-old orphan that merited closure of the orphanage. However, the trustees had asked for one more chance while contesting the incidents, as the SOS Balgram maintained an impeccable record for the last 36 years of its existence.
After a hunger strike and a sustained campaign by the former students of the SOS Balgram and media outrage, which included a series of articles in Moneylife, there had been a lull for eight months, with the trustees being allowed to run the orphanage, with assurances that the children would not be moved out.
However, suddenly tables seem to have turned. Deputy Commissioner of women and child welfare department, Rahul More admitted that, “the state government has asked us to take immediate action on its directives issued in the 22nd August letter, I am on tour and it requires the Commissioner’s approval before the process begins.” He also admitted that the department has been asked to explore the possibility of reclaiming the land.
Very strangely, the 30-year lease of the SOS Balgram land expired in 2006 but according to insiders renewal of the lease was ‘deliberately’ being postponed, time and again. They were asked to pay the annual rent of Rs8,500 per year, directly to the revenue department. Since the last two years, at least eight reminders have been sent to the revenue department for renewal of lease, but there have been no replies to the letters, says a reliable source. Now, in an official letter, the women and child welfare department has been asked to reclaim land, at the earliest.
Very clearly, this move is suspicious. Ashok Ghadge, director of SOS Balgram, says, “I am surprised at the hasty move to close the Balgram. We have already spent near to half a crore on the children after the commissioner in February and August revoked the order to move the children out. The women and child welfare department has already ordered the child committee to begin the process of sending children to other homes. No reasoning has been given as to why they have taken this action suddenly. They have not asked for any report of the performance in the last eight months. This letter belies any logic and reasoning and legal standing.’’
The Bombay High Court too had directed the women and welfare department to look into the issue, which had encouraged the trustees and administration to believe that the license would be revoked. Thereafter, Gaikwad had called for a meeting and it seemed the story would amiably end. (Read: Pune’s SOS Balgram to be given a second chance?)
Ghadge has issued a letter to women and child welfare ministry, requesting that the SOS Balgram authorities be given an opportunity to put forward their side of the issue and give an explanation for this knee jerk action.’’ However, it seems, this time, the state government is firm on driving out a social home for the sake of alleged high society needs.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet – The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart – Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall