In the first judgment in the horrific December 16 gang rape of a paramedical student that ultimately killed her, one of the accused, who was 17 when he committed the crime, has been sent to a reformatory for three years by a juvenile court. This is the maximum ‘punishment’ possible under the juvenile law.
Even as the clamour demanding that the rapist be treated as an adult grew louder, the mother of the teenager was relieved by the verdict. “If he gets wise, perhaps he would never make such a mistake in life ever.” She seemed hopeful that her son could be reformed.
The teenager has gone back to the same Majnu Ka Tila special home where he has already spent eight months in detention. This time though, he will be lodged in a ‘place of safety’, and not the regular dorms, in what the authorities call “institutionalised segregation”.
It was just three weeks back that a group of boys lodged in this reformatory set ablaze the blankets, mattresses, office records, and pelted stones at the staff. A week later, the Delhi High Court noted that “the standards were not being adhered to at juvenile homes in the Capital”.
During a follow-up visit, the child rights panel found that the home, essentially a barrack, had terrible hygiene, little open space for outdoor games, and no facility or staff for targeted counselling of its inmates.
It is not the first time the city’s juvenile homes have witnessed this kind of violence. Led by the leader of ‘burgle and burn’ gang, juvenile delinquents of another north Delhi reformatory made at least six escapes by overpowering the guards and scaling the walls.
The gang leader, now an adult, is a seasoned burglar with a fetish for arson and is lodged in Tihar Jail. The special home could do little to reform him.
The idea behind India’s juvenile justice system is that children in conflict with the law should be helped rather than punished. The Juvenile Justice Act, in its current form, was enacted in 2000, changing the age bar for minors from 16 to 18 years to be in consonance with the United Nations Convention on child rights.
“The essence of the Act is restorative not retributive…integrating the child in conflict with law into the mainstream society,” the Supreme Court observed, rejecting a batch of petitions challenging the age bar set for trying juvenile offenders.
However, it is the business of reforming minor delinquents that has emerged as a major problem area. The Delhi government spends 12% of the annual planned budget under the social welfare head. But funds do not change attitudes. Most babus working in the social welfare department consider their postings a punishment.
Involving the voluntary sector could have brought the required skills at no extra cost. But blame games always came in the way of collaborations. Most special homes lack infrastructure, trained counsellors and probationary officers. Hiring is on contractual basis. Delayed salaries and bureaucratic hold-ups on funds are not great motivators.
Few homes that have facilities for vocational training offer classes in tailoring, cooking and plumbing.
But the kids show no interest.
Brawls, drug abuse and blade attacks are common, which the authorities insist can only be controlled by punitive action that they are not allowed to take. In the company of repeat offenders, younger kids usually end up as hardened criminals.
The gruesome nature of his crime makes it impossible to imagine the youngest accused in the December gang rape case as a child. It is for the apex court to decide if the psychological maturity of minor offenders should determine culpability.
The government must ensure that delinquents who land up in reformatories stand a chance to come out clean.