Law and Government fail our children

While more children are committing crime, both petty and serious in nature, they are also victims, insist activists, who say they should not be treated like adults or criminals

Law and Government fail our children

Sanjukta Basu & Amitabh Srivastava

A15-year-old boy in a Okhla school stabbed his senior, a 17-year-old-boy, to death reportedly after the latter abused his mother. Delhi ranks first among 19 Indian cities in juvenile crimes, reveals the latest NCRB data. Serious crime committed by children has been on the rise.

In December 2017 a 16-year-old boy was held for murdering his mother and sister with scissors and a pizza cutter because he was scolded and beaten up at home. The same year murder of 7-year-old Pradyuman Thakur by a 16-year-old senior at the Ryan International School in Gurugram had shocked the capital.

At the national level a total of 29,768 cases were registered against minors during 2020 and 35,352 children were apprehended. A staggering 10% of them were in Delhi.

Even more alarmingly, crimes for which children were arrested included murder, rape, sexual offences, assaults on women with intent to outrage modesty, attempt to murder, attempt to commit culpable homicide, kidnappings and abductions.

Sampurna Behura, Director – Strategic Litigation at Bachpan Bachao Andolan says, “We no longer call them ‘juvenile delinquents’ but ‘children in conflict with law’. You have to acknowledge that these children are themselves victims and not criminals.

“TV News media, newspapers and the internet are full of viral content of sexual harassment, lynching and graphic details of sexual crime. Children are impressionable and are influenced by peer groups. Lack of attention from parents is also impacting,” she added.

On the situation in Delhi, she says, “Delhi government needs to ensure timely disbursement of funds, develop a robust rehabilitation plan, increase funding and invest in building a pool of dedicated counsellors to help the children with mental health, provide scholarship and sustenance allowance, seed funding for projects children may want to take up on attaining adulthood and so on.” Such provisions exist in law, she points out, but are seldom implemented or implemented well.

While children from marginalized communities and economically weaker classes are prone to commit crime because of poverty and the social environment they grow up in, even upper-class urban children are not entirely immune.

Lowering the legal age of ‘children’ has not acted as a deterrent, says child rights NGO Save The Children. “We keep on lowering the age and denying children a chance at reforming themselves by trying them as adults. It’s not wise to keep on blaming juveniles for crime. It is time to invest in making our juvenile justice system work strongly,” the NGO had stated in a statement.

Children who come in conflict with the law must be ensured speedy justice; otherwise, they tend to get frustrated and turn again towards crime, say activists.

As many as 1,320 children, held on petty offences and whose cases were pending before the Juvenile Justice Boards in Delhi for over a year, have now been freed following a Delhi High Court order.

Noting that such pending cases had registered a 44% increase during the pandemic, the High Court observed that the law required them to be produced before Juvenile Justice Boards within four to six months.

Petty offences, according to the JJ Act, include trespassing, possession/ receipt of stolen property, theft, pornography, passing lewd comments etc. The court was clear that freeing the children would not absolve the Government of its responsibility to rehabilitate them.

DCPCR Chairman Anurag Kundu admitted that children accused of petty offences faced stigma and discrimination; schools don’t want to keep them and detention had an adverse impact on their mental health. Shashank Shekhar, Advocate Supreme Court and a former member of the DCPCR pointed out that the children should have been released after six months because the cases against them automatically collapsed if they were not produced before the Board within six months.

Dr Shobha Gupta, founder president of NGO Sampoorna says there are good government schemes on paper but states and district administrations were not serious about rehabilitation.

“In my 27 years with Sampoorna, I have found that once a child leaves home for the street, he does not want to go back home. He starts enjoying his freedom. Those who are forcibly sent home, find they are unwelcome because they are one among four or five siblings. In children’s homes they dislike the food, rules and routine.”

There are no juvenile courts in smaller towns. Every district does not have a Children’s Home or a JJB in the country. And the overworked police do not have time to check the age of children before taking them into custody. “They do not carry their birth certificates or ID proof, you know,” says a policeman wryly

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