During the 11 years I worked with the emergency helpline service Childline, I have had the opportunity to befriend many children who live on the edge of society. Among them was 11-year-old Arif, who lived with a gang of boys at Bandra railway station in Mumbai. Skinny and very affectionate, the more attention you gave him, the more he needed. Arif’s life ended abruptly. He got hit by a local train while scavenging on the tracks. There was also Ravi, aged 13. Charming, with beautiful brown eyes, he once stole our office keys, planning to return late in the night with a group of children to steal our computers.
Both Arif and Ravi ran away from abusive homes, sniffed glue through the day, and scavenged off the railway tracks for a living. They stood a good chance of taking to a life of crime. We tend to be apathetic to children like them who we see every day, begging on the streets, or selling merchandise at traffic lights.
Recently, one such street child seems to have been part of a gang of six that committed a grave and horrendous crime — the case that has come to be known as the Delhi gangrape. It is being suggested that he was also the most serious offender, though it isn’t quite clear how this opinion has been formed. News channels are claiming that there has been a rise in the number of children under 18 committing heinous crimes. They question if a person who has committed monstrous crimes should really be considered to be a juvenile. Many are clamouring for an amendment to the law to bring down the age for juvenile status from 18 to 16 years and to allow all children in this age group to be tried for serious offences as adults, in contravention of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, which recognises individuals who have not completed 18 years of age as children.
As we form our opinions it may be prudent to consider a few facts. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2011, only 1.1 per cent of all Indian Penal Code crimes were committed by juveniles. Only 4.5 per cent of all crimes committed by juveniles were rape — and only 3.5 per cent of all rapes were committed by juveniles.
Despite Article 39 of the Constitution directing that children should be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner in conditions of freedom and dignity, and that childhood and youth be protected against exploitation, and moral and material abandonment, India’s children are subject to great violence. In a national study on child abuse in 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that two out of every three children had been physically abused and most children did not report the matter to anyone; 53.22 per cent of children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse; 50 per cent of cases of abuse are by persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility.
The systems to safeguard children in India are still severely lacking. It has been three years since the government enacted the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), which aims to set in place child protection services in every district of the country. Preliminary feedback indicates that the scheme is hugely under-resourced, and already lagging in its implementation. An example of this is the shaky condition of juvenile justice homes (funded under the ICPS) whose primary task it is to work on reforming young minds. Most juvenile homes today are fraught with problems which include poor infrastructure, unskilled personnel, and a lack of specialised professionals like psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counsellors.
The threshold of 18 years, to determine if a person is a child or an adult, is not accidental. Children are considered incapable of suitably weighing situations and making decisions. Hence, many constitutional rights, such as voting, are withheld from children. A child cannot open a bank account in his own name nor is he given a licence to drive. If children are considered incapable of making informed decisions, by law, by the same logic it becomes necessary to take special measures for their protection.
A year ago, the case of two-year-old baby Falak caught the attention of the country. She was abused and brutalised. One of her abusers was a 14-year-old girl who we later learnt was a victim of human trafficking herself. Even then there were murmurs about the lack of protective systems in the country. Falak died after a number of surgeries, the media stopped reporting the story, and we forgot all about the 14-year-old girl. The last we heard of her was that she was placed in a children’s home. At the time, we empathised with the girl. We were able to see her as a victim of circumstances beyond her control.
In the Delhi gangrape case however, it is hard to feel any empathy for the juvenile accused. No one has talked about him as a 10-year-old boy who ran away from home and had to fend for himself in Delhi. We overlook the fact that this boy had no interface with the state; that he fell out of his family, out of his school; that no social worker ever reached him, no child care services ever found him.
It is not being suggested that juvenile criminals must be protected at the cost of justice for the victim. Every criminal must be held accountable, including this juvenile in question. However, if he is tried as an adult, he will most probably be sentenced to an adult prison. While prisons are meant to be reformatory in nature, in practice they seldom are. This juvenile will be released in some years, and, in all likelihood, turn into a hardened criminal. While it is hard to reconcile with the fact that this young person could walk free after three years if tried as a juvenile, doesn’t this country owe him an opportunity for reformation?
Children like Arif, Ravi and the boy involved in the Delhi case have never been offered the chance to aspire for a different life. The state cannot take away childhood, before it creates a protective environment for its children. The need of the hour is for the State to invest in infrastructure, education, awareness, communication, human resource, skills, technology and expertise for child protection. We should settle for no less.