Thursday, October 21, 2010

The tacit graveyard of unspeakable horror covered with layers of dust, weeds

One of the things that was on my mind when I was setting out for Noida was D-5 — the house where children and women were raped and murdered reported as Nithari killings in 2006. Reports of cannibalism also surfaced. When all this was reported, I was working in Patna. And to say that I was disturbed big time would be an understatement.

On reaching Noida, other priorities needed redress and getting to the “place” took a backseat. Once settled a bit, I tried finding out where exactly the bungalow lay. I was shocked. The house I have taken on rent in Noida was located not far off. Once there, I found I was mistaken. I was under the impression the area would be deserted with D-5 still haunting the locals.

About four years after Nithari shocked the nation, local people are learning to move on. I found carefree bunches of small schoolchildren walking past the bungalow, in which Pandher’s car continues to rust, covered with layers of dust. Our photographer was disappointed too. He had the typical images of some bhoot bangla in his mind. But everything looked “normal.”

Though weeds have enveloped the sealed entrance of the tacit graveyard of unspeakable horror deserted structure, eateries — Lallan Tea Stall is always crowded — have come up on the roadside (the CBI had dug out skeletons from a drain behind D-5). Cops deputed to protect the case property look bored. Real estate, or at least, rentals are limping back to normal. And, more importantly, locals look to leave the killings behind.

I confronted a middle-aged man standing nearby. “I’m Satyaveer Pandeet. I run a grocery shop,” he said. Okay, but what he said after that was surprising. Asked where he stayed, he said, “I have bought the house opposite D-5.” He said he was sure about the property he intended to buy in sector 31 some three months ago. His family members were not. A regular house alright, but it stood bang in front of D-5.

“I knew exactly what I was doing. The deal was good,” Pandeet told me. “Pandher’s servant Surinder Koli has got three death sentences. Many more may come. Life for others has to move on,” he said while rushing to work. Pandeet runs his shop in Nithari. Pandeet’s wife Babita Sharma said, “We know the area would always be known for all the wrong reasons. But we cannot keep looking back.” For kids, though, reasoning is not that easy. Their 15-year-old son Tarun studies at Model School in sector 11. “My friends ask don’t I fear living in front of D-5. I don’t know what to say,” he said at his A-24 house.

Head constable Krishnawtar Gautam, posted in a makeshift picket in to ensure the bungalow’s security, hurriedly began wearing his uniform on seeing us (blame it on the camera). He has observed Koli. “Koli is paying for his sins. His health has worsened. Even he has a family and children to look after,” he said.

Right next to the “killer house”, there stands D-6. Its security guard Raju Chaudhary (45) joined duty a month ago. Did not he think of avoiding the assignment? “Is ghar se mujhe kya matlab? Iske liye toh police hai. Akhbaar me toh sab nikalta hi rahta hai. Mujhe toh kahin bhi duty karni hai. (I am not bothered about Pandhre’s house. Cops protect it. Newspapers write about it. I have to work somewhere or the other,” he said.

After Nithari become synonymous with murder and horror, people began avoiding the area, rents went down, and people left houses. “Locals chose to address themselves as residents of Sector 31,” said a tea stall vendor, Kishan. In 2006, the land rate in Sector 31 was between Rs 40,000 and Rs 45,000 psqm. Things have not changed much since then. But realty experts sense some restoration. Sahil Khan, a property dealer, said, “Nithari is or should be history now. The rentals in sector 31 are not very less compared to other areas. For 1 BHK accommodation, you have to shell out Rs 10,000. For 2 BHK, the rental is Rs 13-14,000.” “See, the basic problem is that of the three blocls, block B is okay but portions of block A and C are quite rural in character, marked by presence of cattle heads and encroachment. That’s why the stagnation in land prices,” he added.

I also wanted to know how the killings came to know. And here’s how: Before December 2006, children kept going missing and no body had any clue. A girl, Payal, was one of the unfortunate kids. Her mobile was put on surveillance and, after six months, it was traced to a PCO in Mamura. The shop owner had purchased it from a rickshaw-puller. The rickshaw-puller, on spotted, said he had ferried someone in Nithari and the passenger had forgotten the mobile on the seat. The SIM card being used was found to have been obtained by Koli. After his arrest, Koli broke and confessed to the killings.

Retired defence officer and currently an RTI activist Lokesh Batra has used RTI to expose government indifference and failure in handling Nithari massacre. I had met him during the recent HT Conclave to announce our launch in Noida. When I was planning to write on Nithari, I called him up for assistance. For him, the killings were not just about the master-servant duo, currently lodged in Ghaziabad’s Dasna jail.

“It was a systematic failure. Had they paid attention to these cases earlier, these serial killings would have been prevented,” he said. He was convinced that if the drains around the bungalow were cleaned regularly, the bodies could have been discovered much earlier. In response to his RTI application, the Noida authority informed him that the drains in Noida were cleaned after a gap of every 15 to 30 days. The last time the authority cleaned the drain outside D-5 was between December 20 and 23, 2006- just six days before the Nithari killings became public.

“If the cleaning of the drains was taking place as usual, then why did not they find anything unusual?” asked Batra. He filed RTI application in the Noida police asking what it did to trace the missing children. According to the information, the Noida police went to 34 locations to investigate the Nithari killings. However, the first visit was made only in march 2006 (nine months before the expose) when Nithari post in -charge K.P. Singh went to seelampur and brahampuri in North East Delhi. Noida Police’s reply to the RTI application came on February 19, 2007 and till then no police official had claimed any expenditure for these trips. “On whose cost they travelled then?”

When a special CBI court late last month sentenced to death Surinder Koli — servant of businessman Moninder Singh Pandher — for rape and murder of a nine-year -old girl, Rachna Lal, one of the many victims in the sensational Nithari killings in 2006, the deceased’s family was only partly satisfied. This was the third case related to killing of young children and women in which Koli has been awarded capital punishment. But members of the family lament the fact the Pandher — who they believe was also involved in the gory acts — was not chargesheeted in the case. Koli is accused of rape and murder in all 19 cases. Pandher has been co-accused in six of them.

The girl’s father Pappu Lal told me, “Pandher has been let off the hook because of his wealth and its consequent political connections. A servant alone cannot resort to such barbaric acts. I am pained. We will move the High Court.” Mother Laxmi said, “The judgment is out. Now the hanging should take place immediately.” Her parents on the basis her belongings and a DNA test report identified Rachna.

The killings came to light when the remains of the victims were found dumped in a drain behind Pandher's house in Noida’s sector 31 in December 2006. A total of 19 FIRs had been lodged in connection with the Nithari killings. Chargesheets were filed in 16 cases. Though Koli has been sentenced to death in Rimpa Haldhar and Aarti murder cases too, the angst is widespread and not limited to the Lals alone.

Durga Prasad, father of Aarti (a Nithari victim), said, “I cannot rest easy till Pandher is hanged. He must have been farmed for being part of the conspiracy.” Rimpa’s father Anil Haldhar, said, “The High Cort acquitted Pandher, but we will move the Supreme Court. We want justice.”

On February 13, 2009, Pandher and Koli were sentenced to death in the Rimpa Haldar case in the first verdict in the Nithari killings. However, Pandher was acquitted by the Allahabad High Court in September 2009. Pandher is still lodged in Dasna district jail in Ghaziabad.

Parents of other Nithari victims such as Payal, Jyoti, Madhu, Max and Harsh echo similar sentiments and seek a fresh probe or constitution of an inquiry commission. The CBI has already said it will not submit chargesheet in the rest of the cases as they were found to have no links with the Nithari killings.

The last four years have seen the families of victims run from pillar to post, trying to get justice and reliving the horror of 2006 again and again. The victims mostly belonged to families of migrant workers from Bihar and West Bengal living in shanties or slums in Nithari village of Noida’s sector 31. Parents had filed several complaints with the local police about missing children between 2005 and 2006. The police allegedly refused to help them. The families alleged since they were poor, the police shooed them away.

Early this year, three girls, students of Government Inter College in Noida’s sector 12, went missing. The parents made rounds of the Sector-24 Kotwali and the SSP’s office daily for a month. No one gave them a hearing. Aged 13, 15 and 16 years, the girls are yet to be traced. The helpless parents have moved the High Court for justice.

And they are not alone. The police have no clues about more than two dozen kids who went missing in Noida Post-Nithari, leaving the parents distraught. Only on September 29, a 12-year-old girl was reported missing from Sector 31 in Nithari area.
The Nithari killings had prompted the Supreme Court to issue a detailed list of dos and don’ts on missing children. A hue and cry soon led to “constitution” of special cells in each district and a centralised database in Lukcnow. Each police station was supposed to keep the district crime record bureau updated on missing kids, so that the figures can be sent to Lucknow for further follow-up.

But hardly anything is happening on this front in Noida. Post-Nithari there was a clear instruction from the police headquarters in Lucknow to all police stations across the state to lodge kidnapping cases if missing kids are not traced within three days. But parents continue to run from pillar to post for justice.

The parents who are generally shooed away by the police are those who are migrant workers from living slums. In the case of Nithari, parents had filed several complaints with the local police about missing children between 2005 and 2006.

That did not interest the police. The police still take details but do nothing. They often blame parents for being uncaring or even say the children had left on their own.. And it’s not only the fear of another Nithari, but there are chances of these missing kids working as cheap labour, prostitutes, porn actors or beggars, he added.
More than a hundred minors, both girls and boys, went missing from Gautam Budhha Nagar district this year. The data available, of case registered by the Noida police alone, puts the figure at 45. Some kids have been restored to their families but police sources estimate post-Nithari, more than two dozen unfortunate ones are still missing.
When I asked SP City H.N. Singh what all was being done to set things right, he had an answer ready, “The special missing cell was set up after in the aftermath of Nithari killings. Right now, the system is slightly decentralized — cases are being registered, investigated and worked out at the level of police stations.”

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