The last few sessions of Parliament have been so acrimonious that many barely remember the last time the House functioned without a hitch. So while it was heartening to see the Upper House finally agreeing on an issue — the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, in this case — the show of unity was hardly inspiring. It was uninspiring not only because of the quality of the Bill, which provides for the trial of those between 16 and 18 years of age as adults for heinous offences, but also because of the quality of the legislative process that preceded the passage of the Bill.
There are several reasons for being so disappointed: First, it is clear that the MPs were reacting to political expediency, and little else. Here is an example of how positions on the Bill changed in a matter of few months: Earlier some Congress MPs called the Bill extremely unjust and a bad law. Barely two weeks ago, several Congress and Trinamool Congress MPs demanded that the Bill be sent to a House panel. But suddenly on Tuesday, obviously under pressure after days of public agitation and media frenzy, both parties started singing a different tune.
Second, the debates on the critical issue were poor, the majority of MPs seemed at sea about the different dimensions of the law, and their lack of understanding was masked by emotions rather than rational discussions.
Third, the homework done on the Bill by the government to push its passage was poor. Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi’s claim that juvenile crime is on the rise is incorrect; the National Crime Records Bureau data show that juvenile crimes have remained static over the last three years. If this is true, the minister must explain how and why she made such a claim on the floor of the House.
On the quality of the Bill and the decision to reduce the age, there are several concerns: Senior legal minds have asked the government not to convert this into a battle between women and children. Moreover, as a PRS legislative analysis shows, the provision of trying a juvenile committing a serious or heinous offence as an adult based on the date of arrest could violate Article 14 (right to equality) and Article 21 (requiring that laws and procedures are fair and reasonable).
While as one MP said that there is no perfect Bill, one would have hoped that a thorough legislative process would have ironed out the concerns through intense legal scrutiny before the Bill was put up for passage. But in this case surely the only concern seemed to have been to deliver what the public wanted. This is a dangerous precedent which may backfire in the long run.