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Age of innocence

The possibility of two of the accused in the Delhi gangrape case being under 18 years of age has brought the spotlight on India's juvenile justice system. Is it rehabilitating kids or making them hardened criminals? Zehra Kazmi and Abhijit Patnaik write.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2013 02:39 IST

In 2005, Saddam Hussein, a thirteen-and-a-half-year-old school drop-out from Seelampur in East Delhi, murdered a security guard. His criminal record already boasted of chain-snatching and stealing mobile phones, all to fund his drug habit.

Saddam's foray into substance abuse started with smoking ganja in school. From there, he progressed to inhaling whitener fluid, drinking alcohol and injecting himself with heroin. Not the ideal way to spend your teenage years.

Saddam's is but one of thousands of stories from across the country of drug abuse and crime among juveniles. In and out of different juvenile homes for the next six years, Saddam finally landed up at a drug rehabilitation centre in Delhi in 2011. An addict, a murderer, a thief, shunned by family and friends - at 18, the inveterate Saddam seemed damned to a life of crime.

At Sewa Kutir, tucked away near the Mukherjee Nagar Police station in North Delhi, he was not only weaned off drugs, but has a renewed ambition and wisdom beyond his years. Today, he works as a cook at the centre's 'Sahyog' canteen, earning Rs 5,000 a month, sending Rs 3,000 to his family.

The centre, drug de-addiction and rehabilitation centre for juveniles 'in conflict with law', was started in April 2011 in partnership with the department of women and child development. Their 90-day programme includes detoxification as well as vocational training (such as motor training and laundry workshops) and counselling for both inmates and their families. "Of the 250 kids that we have treated, 80% recover well," said Shivendu Bhattacharjee, who runs the programme. Noticeable by their absence at the centre were any security guards or even locked gates.

According to Dr Rajesh Kumar, founder, Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses, which runs the centre at Sewa Kutir, a majority of juvenile crime in India is drug-related. "Kids are addicted to fluid, smack or ganja. One gram of smack costs around Rs 2,000 and addicts need 2-3 grams a day. How else will they earn so much money, but by turning to crime?" he said.

This centre, however, is perhaps one shining example in an otherwise bleak universe of juvenile justice. Even the Justice Verma committee, constituted to recommend reforms in rape law, observed last week: "(We) are completely dissatisfied with he operation of children's' institutions. It is time the State invested in reformation for juvenile offenders and destitute juveniles."

State-run juvenile homes, intended to be correctional facilities, have transformed into hotbeds of violence, addiction and abuse. Observation homes are more like jails. Amod Kanth, former chairperson, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) said, "There is 'office hour control' at most government-run homes. After 5pm, low-level employees take charge and rules go out the window."

The Age Question
The recent public outrage against the Delhi gang rape has raised the volume for calls to reduce the juvenile age from 18 to 16 years, a demand supported by the chief ministers of UP and Bihar. Examples of rehabilitation such as young Saddam's serve as cases in point against these calls. "With juveniles, there is still a chance to rehabilitate them in three years (the maximum sentence allowed under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000)," said Kumar.

Rationale-driven focus
With experts differing over how to deal with juveniles committing heinous crimes, such as rape and murder, some experts feel that sentences need to be increased.

"In India we have the three-year sentence limit irrespective of offence. We need to balance the rights of a child with the rights of a society to safety," said Suman Nalwa of the Delhi Police Special Unit for Women and Children.

While a debate on the Act is welcome, its age-centric focus is myopic. Instead of fixing what isn't broken, experts feel that empowering the Juvenile Justice Board with powers to treat 16-18-year-old offenders accused of heinous crimes as adults subject to thorough evaluation would yield better results.

The Juvenile Justice Act suffers more from a lack of implementation than deterrent legislation. Children in need of care - orphans, those who live and work on the streets, drug addicts, disabled, etc - are most susceptible to turning to a life of crime. Only by properly addressing their needs can we bring down the juvenile crime rates, something also pointed out by Justice Verma.

For Saddam, the journey has already been a long and hard one, and he is not even 20. But the night is darkest just before the dawn. "It was very difficult to leave drugs. People had given up on me. I lost my father and his shop. But at Sewa Kutir, they told me I should forget about all that I have lost and look forward. Now, I dream of opening my own dhaba some day."

(with inputs from Karan Choudhary)