In August 2013, newspapers in Delhi displayed images showing juvenile convicts going berserk in their special home at Majnu ka Tila in New Delhi. Some of them, alleging ill-treatment, had clashed with the security personnel of the home, leading to widespread rioting. A group of convicts threw stones, broke window panes and doors, set beddings ablaze and laid siege to the prison compound. As the rioting intensified, the group started accosting shopkeepers through the barbed-wire fencing and threatening passers-by, and even throwing stones at their property. The residents of the area quickly went indoors and shut their doors and shopkeepers closed down their shops forcing the Delhi government to deploy a special battalion of police. The incident led to discussions in the media about the conditions in juvenile prisons and raised concerns about the efficacy of the homes in preventing juvenile offences.
The newspapers failed to report the fact that the rioters had only recently been shifted from the Tihar jail, which is meant only for adult convicts. Advocacy organisations working on child rights and juvenile justice have been raising the issue of non-implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act for a long time now. They have found innumerable instances of juvenile convicts languishing in adult prisons. They believe that juveniles in conflict with the law have a much higher chance of turning into hardened criminals if they are lodged in adult prisons.
Following a writ petition filed by some of these organisations, the Delhi High Court in May 2012 took cognisance of the problem and ordered the Delhi Police and other authorities concerned to implement the Juvenile Justice Act. Following the order, a number of juvenile convicts were transferred to the Majnu ka Tila special home. Responding to queries made through the Right to Information Act by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, the prison authorities suggested that there could probably be 1,500 probable juveniles in the Tihar jail. The possibility of juveniles turning into hardened criminals in adult prisons was reinforced by the rioting incident at the Majnu ka Tila home. The Juvenile Justice Bill, 2015, which allows juveniles to be tried as adults for heinous crimes, may compound the problem of juvenile crime and create more hardened criminals.
The idea behind the imprisonment of juvenile offenders has historically rested on the tenet of reformation. Rehabilitating and reforming juveniles, instead of punishing them, has been the focus of the juvenile justice system in India. But insufficient budgetary allocations for juvenile homes have resulted in these homes underperforming. There are three observation homes in Delhi for juvenile undertrials, of which one is for girls. Only one full-fledged special home is in operation for convicts.
Bharti Ali, co-director of HAQ, said: “Despite several monitoring mechanisms available nationally and internationally, the goals of juvenile justice remain an illusion. The most important factor responsible for this is low investments in crime prevention and juvenile justice. On the contrary, within juvenile justice, more money is being spent on detention than on alternative measures that are cost-effective and beneficial for both the child in question and society and the country at large.”
Statistics reveal the callousness on the part of the government. According to a HAQ report, budget allocation for children has been declining consistently with the budget for the current fiscal showing the steepest decline from 4.52 per cent in 2014-15 to 3.26 per cent in 2015-16. </p><p>“Inadequacy in public spending on child protection and juvenile justice is reflected in the fact that on an average, in the last 10 years, child protection received only three paise out of every 100 rupees spent by the Union of India. Analysis of flagship programmes such as the Integrated Child Protection Scheme [ICPS], which is the vehicle for implementing juvenile justice and child protection, shows poor financial planning, abysmal funding and huge underspending,” the report stated.
The ICPS lists out extensive norms for child protection laws and juvenile justice, but the budget for 2015-16 has allocated only Rs.402.33 crore for its implementation across India. If the revised ICPS norms are taken into account, the cost of setting up offices of the State Child Protection Society (SCPS), the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU), the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), and the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) in 675 districts would be Rs.363.30 crore, leaving hardly any money for rehabilitation schemes. The Juvenile Justice Bill, 2015, mentions the setting up of British-style borstals for juvenile convicts but the government has shown no interest in increasing the budgetary allocation.
As a result, juvenile homes function without proper measures for rehabilitation. Juvenile homes in Delhi are hugely understaffed. Almost 75 per cent of the supervisory officers have been hired on contract. There is no training programme for the authorities of juvenile homes. Most vocational programmes or educational courses are not attended properly because of lack of funds. “The usual vocational programmes for juvenile convicts are useless. There is no proper skill development programme that may help them once they are out of the home. For instance, juvenile homes in Delhi teach the inmates to make candles, which can hardly become a profession in their lives,” said Bharti Ali.
“Drug addiction is a huge problem among the inmates. Yet, there are no corrective measures for this in Delhi. The training support is not uniform and the secretariat support to the CWC and the JJB is limited. Most importantly, investment in infrastructure is negligible,” she said.
In addition, problems such as overcrowding in juvenile homes persist in Delhi. According to the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, not more than five inmates should share a dormitory. However, lack of space in juvenile homes forces the authorities to keep more than 15 inmates in one dormitory. Similarly, the law mandates that the cases of juveniles booked for petty offences should be disposed of within six months. But this is hardly implemented, leading to further overcrowding in the homes. Overcrowding and lack of dedicated, full-time staff have led to problems such as sexual abuse and drug addiction in these centres. A study by the Asian Centre for Human Rights found that there was a 336 per cent increase in child rape cases in India between 2001 and 2011 and a large number of them were reported from juvenile justice homes.
While these problems have been discussed often, there is hardly any debate on the structural problems that have paralysed the juvenile justice system. “The homes for juveniles in Delhi are still better than those in other States. Other States do not even pretend to implement child protection laws. But the comparison is only relative. The conditions in juvenile homes even in Delhi are pathetic,” said Bharti Ali.
The HAQ report states: “Energies and funds must be directed at improving things instead of finding solutions in the adult criminal justice system that has failed juveniles everywhere in the world. The critical areas where governments need to put their energies are: counselling for every juvenile and their family; de-addiction treatment and rehabilitation programme with strong follow-up; recruitment of adequate number of welfare officers with decent and timely remuneration to ensure individual attention to each juvenile in conflict with the law [JCL]; decongestion of institutions in a manner that not more than four to six juveniles stay in a dormitory; preparing individual care plans for every juvenile entering the system and ensuring that these care plans are part of the order of the Juvenile Justice Board; and, tying up with the Directorate of Education and Vocational Training and the National Skills Development Council to introduce market-oriented skill development programmes and enrolling juveniles in these programmes, even if they are released.”
Despite the pathetic conditions in the juvenile homes, it would be wrong to say that they are all breeding grounds for criminals. Anant Asthana, a prominent child rights lawyer associated with the Human Rights Law Network and the Delhi State Legal Services Authority, said in one of his interviews to the web portal homegrown.co.in: “One 16-year-old juvenile I was assisting used to tell me that I was wasting my time on him and that he was on his way to becoming Dawood Ibrahim one day. I used to smile, and he used to smile back, as he saw that I was not going to give up. Now this boy plays drums in the group Devi Jagran and has settled down with his family, far away from crime. I remember another boy of no more than 17 years and seven months, who was booked for three cases of robbery in Delhi and one case of being a gangster in Uttar Pradesh. It took two years of work to help him out of that life. Now he teaches painting to children in Delhi and is looking forward to growing as an artist.”
“Society cares only when a monster comes out of childhood. Nothing else bothers us. We are fine with children begging, collecting garbage and sleeping on the streets. At the implementation level, the kind of zeal that should exist is sorely lacking. If I had to say one thing, I would say the key to ensuring the implementation of laws relating to child protection lies in governance. Our laws are by and large okay. There is no significance attached to it. A community of active citizens, lawyers, journalists, judges, and government officials, needs to keep working towards their implementation, and it is already happening. The momentum is there, it is just that it needs to be allowed to go on. Any interruption or reversal will certainly cause great damage,” Asthana said.
By Lyla Bavadam
Dr Asha Bajpai, Professor of Law at the Centre of Law and Society at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), narrated a poignant experience she had during one of her many visits to juvenile homes: “I still remember the bright eyes of a young girl who was waiting with her mother outside one of these homes. I asked the mother why the girl was here and she said she had brought her there to study. I turned to the girl and asked her the same question and she said she wanted to be a lawyer and that this place [the home] was where she would start her learning.”
It is apparently common for officials to portray juvenile homes as hostels or boarding schools and not disclose the purpose for which they were established. There are essentially two types of homes, one for JCLs and the other for children in need of care and protection. JCL refers to any person below the age of 18 who has come in contact with the justice system as a result of committing a crime or being suspected of having committed a crime. Children in need of care and protection is the larger and broader category.
Homes for children are plentiful in Maharashtra. The State Women and Child Welfare Department’s website has close to 30,000 names of them—aided, unaided, special care, observation, government-run and set up by non-governmental organisations. It seems that starting a home for children is easy in Maharashtra. In fact, it appears to be a good business proposition—a media report in 2005 showed that Maharashtra cornered over 40 per cent, that is, Rs.7.5 crore, of the Central grant of Rs.16 crore for the Social Maladjustment Scheme in juvenile homes. The State government matched the Centre’s grant with an equal amount, making the running of homes a lucrative business. Most of these homes are in rented premises and seem to require little more than an official nod and disbursement of grants. Grants are inadequate for running the homes properly but enough for funds to be siphoned off. The outcome is complete misuse of the facilities and no benefit at all for any of the children. Asha Bajpai said it was common for district homes to be projected as educational institutions. “People start queuing up every June [at the start of the school year] to get seats. They actually see the homes as convenient places where their children will be fed, clothed and given an education. They treat them like hostels. During every festival the homes would be empty—the children have gone home to celebrate [just like they would from a boarding school].”
A normal day of a child in such an institution should ideally be divided between academic education, skill development, recreation and personal care.
Indeed, the prescribed manual puts all this down to specifics such as girls to be given coconut oil for hair growth. But the reality is far from what is prescribed. Asha Bajpai said: “The soap that is provided has to last for a given number of days and the towels have to be shared. Besides, only a small quantity of oil is given and the food served is insufficient and lacks nutrition.”
The stereotypical picture that most people have of remand homes and juvenile homes is absolutely correct in this case: grim, overcrowded places, exuding a sense of hopelessness and susceptible to violence. In May 2015, an 18-year-old boy was beaten to death by other children at the Matunga home in Mumbai. Though such extreme acts of violence are uncommon, bullying, beating and deprivation are common. So is sexual abuse by the staff, it is said. Apart from undergoing basic training, the staff should get sensitised to the special needs of the children in these homes. “We need trained staff; people who are caretakers. What we have here is staff who are not trained and who have had only primary school education. They do not know how to handle the children. They need to be made to understand that the future of these vulnerable children is in their hands and that they have to be committed to their task,” said Asha Bajpai.
Reform is the cornerstone of juvenile justice but how can it be initiated when something as basic as vocational training is not properly devised? Asha Bajpai said “The making of broom sticks and chalks should stop. Instead, the children should be provided comprehensive courses such as a complete tailoring course instead of just being taught how to sew shirts.” Another suggestion is to send the children to computer training institutes. She said the Ministries of Employment and Labour and the Skill Development Department should be linked to these homes and there should be a quota in employment for children leaving the homes as “they too have aspirations and hopes”.