When 14-year-old Rahul Singh’s parents brought him to Delhi psychiatrist Sunil Mittal last week, he was suffering from attention deficit hyperactive disorder. They were worried it would affect his performance in school. But they were not worried about the fact that Rahul often drove the family car — something Dr Mittal found out quite by chance during his conversations with the boy. Rather, the parents were proud of Rahul’s driving skills. The youngster’s father is an engineer, who has his own business and his mother is a corporate executive. “When I confronted his parents on why Rahul was driving at such an early age, they simply said he wouldn’t listen to them. But they didn’t think it was a serious problem,” says Mittal.
That underage driving could have serious consequences was made tragically clear in the national capital last week, when a 17-year-old driving a Mercedes hit 32-year-old Siddharth Sharma, killing him. In another chilling case of juvenile crime, two teenagers shot an Uber cab driver in Delhi.
Anecdotal evidence showing a spurt in crimes committed by juveniles in the past few years, is backed by data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which shows a substantial rise in the crime rate for juveniles between 2010 and 2014.
Not everyone is comfortable accepting the NCRB data as an indicator of increasing criminality among juveniles. “The population of youngsters has increased more than before. If we check what percentage of total crime is being committed by juveniles, we will find that figure has not changed alarmingly,” points out author-activist Harsh Mander. But he agrees that it is an issue that needs urgent attention.
Most conversations around juvenile crime in recent years have centred around the age of criminality and whether in cases of heinous crimes, juveniles need to be tried in adult courts or not. But activists, NGOs and psychiatrists working with juvenile offenders feel that the dialogue should focus on why youngsters are being drawn into crime and what can be done to prevent this.
INTO A JUVENILE’S MIND
Poverty has always bred resentment, a root-cause of many crimes. But over the years, a fast-changing and developing society has introduced other insecurities. “Across socio-economic and educational groups children are affected by parents not spending quality time with them, and by an increasingly competitive world,” says Dr Rajesh Kumar, director, Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses. According to him, there are a few factors that are specific to each group. In lower middle class families, for instance, where both parents are working, children grow up in a vacuum. In middle class families, parents have multiple expectations from the child, including high grades in school. This often makes the school environment a threatening one for the child. When children fail to cope, depression may lead to substance abuse, and then crime. In high-income families, almost every amenity is provided to the child either from a desire by parents to maintain their own status in society or to satisfy the ego of the child.
Such parents are often insensitive to the moral pitfalls of over-indulgence. Dr Mittal remembers the case of a child who had come to him for counselling five years ago. “Dheeraj, 12, had fired at one of his friends while they were both playing at the former’s house,” he says. “Thankfully, nothing happened to the other child, but when his parents complained to Dheeraj’s parents, Dheeraj’s parents tried to shield him. When the school sent Dheeraj to me for counselling, I found that Dheeraj’s father had been teaching him how to shoot.”
Children are also quick to pick up on friction between adults. Explains Astha Mahajan, senior counsellor, Delhi Public School, Mathura Road , “In cases of marital discord or domestic violence, kids do not reach out to their parents. They consult their friends who may not give the best advice.”
Or worse, the child finds refuge in the virtual world where there is an information overdose. “Adults are struggling to control what the kid is getting exposed to,” says Mahajan. Constant exposure to aggression – verbal and physical – on television news, videos and games, works on an already heightened imaginations, making it seem ‘cool’ to the child at an age when he or she is seeking role models or patterns of behaviour to emulate. It either makes the child desensitised to violence or creates a curiosity to experiment with it. There have been reports of juvenile offenders confessing that they indulged in violence because they wanted to see what it felt like. The easy access to sexually charged or explicit content can have the same effect. “There are MMS sex videos being made and shared,” says Anuradha Sahasrabudhe, founder of Dnyana Devi, an NGO that works towards child-centred community development in Pune. “Zero sex education makes them more prone to all this.”
IN THE DARK
Often, juvenile crime can emerge out of sheer ignorance. A study done by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights in June last year found that “a majority (70.3%) of the children who were serving in the detention centres were quite unaware about the consequences of their acts. It is inferred that driven by the immediate rewards and other unique characteristics such as impulsiveness, adventurism/risk taking and susceptibility to peer influence, they tend to make wrong choices.”
This is especially true of adolescent offenders, those who have reached puberty, says Mittal. “Those in the age group of 15-18 physically resemble adults. They have strength and sexual drive. But their brains are yet to develop logic or reasoning power.”
THE WAY OUT
The onus to ensure that children do not stray is with adults. At home and at educational institutions, they need to monitor the behaviour of children and behave like role models for youngsters. Paediatrician and Mumbai president of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics Dr Samir Dalwai feels that “one solution (to avoid juvenile crime) is for parents to be held legally responsible when their teenaged children break the law.”
Early detection and counselling for those with criminal tendencies is important so that they do not end up as offenders, and also so that they don’t influence others to do the same. This is possible only when parents are cognisant of what is wrong in the child’s behaviour and alert to correcting him/her. “Prevention of juvenile crime is also an important part of the juvenile justice system. But the Indian state has completely neglected this aspect,” says Mumbai-based advocate Maharukh Adenwalla. There is little involvement of psychological counselling during the reform procedure, says Dr Rajat Mitra, a clinical psychologist with experience in criminal psychology.
Without getting into the debate of punishment and the age of criminality, it is important to instil respect for the law. “By and large in India, we do not have rule of law. And youngsters are finding out that it is easy to get away with breaking the law,” says Dr Mitra.
With inputs from Kanika Sharma
(Names of all minors have been changed to protect their identities )
CASE STUDIES: MINOR TRANSGRESSIONS
‘I hit him with a stone, but i didn’t want to kill him’
Sixteen-year-old Sathya’s parents have a large family of four sons and one daughter. Originally from Uttar Pradesh, the family migrated to Delhi for a better life. Both his parents had had no formal education. His father worked as a casual labourer, but being an alcohol addict, spent most of his money on drink. “Our parents never bothered about us. Poverty made them focus more on earning a livelihood. When the financial condition of the family worsened, I was forced to start working at the age of 10,” says Sathya. Initially he worked with his father, but later got a job in a real estate office where he earned `7000 per month. “I never went to school. I don’t know how to write but I can read a little,” he says.
The office where he worked was about a kilometre away from his house. “On the way I had to cross a park which was used as a hang-out by many of the anti-social people from the neighbourhood. On my way back home, an acquaintance who was always under the influence of drugs, would often stop me and demand money. Most days, I used to give him small amounts to avoid a fight. One day I had about `300 with me which I had kept to give to my mother for buying provisions. I refused to give him the money. This made him angry and he started beating me. When I couldn’t take his blows any more, I picked up a stone, hit him and ran away. Later, I came to know that he succumbed to the injury,” says Sathya.
He was caught by the police four days later. “Initially I was sent to Tihar jail. It was a nightmare. There are frequent fights between inmates. They abused me sexually and physically.” Later, after confirming his age, he says he was produced before the Juvenile Justice Board and transferred to an observation home.
Sourced From the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights 2015 Report ‘Why Children Commit Crimes’
‘I swore i hadn’t raped her, but cops booked me’
Kishore, 16, from Jharkhand, was 15 when his father fell on the terrace of their house, injured his head and became mentally unstable. One day he wandered away from home and has not been traced since. Kishore had to stop studying and start working to support his mother and younger brother. He moved to Delhi on the advice of his uncle who had a roadside restaurant there, hoping to earn some decent money in the city. He had studied till class 8. “I was poor in studies. Even if my father hadn’t had the accident, I think I would’ve discontinued my studies,” he says.
In Delhi his uncle found him a job as a salesman in a grocery shop. He stayed with his uncle in a rented one-room apartment in an old two-storeyed building. The building had a common bathroom and toilets on the terrace. On the second floor lived a couple with two children (a boy and girl). Kishore and his uncle had to cross their apartment to go to the terrace. One morning Kishore says he was walking past the apartment when he found the door open and the 15-year-old girl standing by the door. The girl allegedly made some comments about him. He asked her to stop but she continued to make fun of him. He says he lost his temper and slapped her. When she ran inside, he rushed in and began hitting her. She was alone at home as her parents and brother had gone out. According to him, the girl threatened to teach him a lesson.
The boy says that when her parents returned, she told them that he had tried to rape her. The girl’s father filed an FIR and the police caught him. Kishore says he swore that he had not raped or seduced her, but the police did not believe him. He was produced before one of the Juvenile Justice Board members and was sent to an observation home.
Sourced From the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights 2015 Report ‘Why Children Commit Crimes’
‘I will do what I want’
When a weeping neighbour told Vishay’s mother that he had sexually assaulted her seven-year-old child, she was shocked. Vishay was a troubled teen — he stole money for cigarettes and had failed his Class 10 Board exams — but she could never have imagined he would go this far. Trouble had been brewing for two years though, hidden in plain sight. Vishay started smoking and stealing small sums from his parents when he was 15. He responded to reprimands with outbursts of rage. He chafed at the restrictions caused by his parents’ poverty — they were manual labourers and the family shared a single-room home in a south Mumbai slum.
“Vishay would often complain that he could never have new clothes and even schoolbooks had to budgeted for,” says Dr Sagar Mundada of the Sir JJ group of hospitals, the psychiatrist now treating him. “In a way, he adapted by becoming manipulative and opportunistic.” He made friends with children whose parents were better off, and one of them gave him an old smartphone. After dropping out of school, he would spend all day with them and together they began watching porn online. “Vishay was going through what we call conduct disorder — when children passing through adolescence become stubborn and aggressive,” says Dr Mundada. “This can manifest as fights with family members, bullying of classmates or petty crimes such as stealing money from parents. At this time, it is vital that parents talk to the child, offer positive guidance, or seek therapy if things seem like they are getting out of hand.” With his parents exhausted and unable to cope with his behaviour, Vishay’s issues escalated.
Two months ago, the neighbour discovered that the 17-year-old had been sexually abusing her little girl for four or five months. “Kiya maine aisa, laga mere ko karna chahiye (I did it; I felt it was what I wanted to do),” Vishay said to Dr Mundada at their first meeting in March. “He said he picked the girl because she was small and would be easy to control,” the doctor adds. At his second session, Vishay said: ‘Who are you to judge me? I will do what I want.’ Vishay will meet with the doctor once a month for counselling. That is how the families have decided to resolve the issue.
‘All right, we’ll see’
When Rakesh first walked into psychiatrist Dr Amit Desai’s clinic at Jaslok hospital, he was nervous, fidgety and angry. Only some of this was a result of his drug addiction.
Two years earlier, the 18-year-old had been taken from the small town in UP where he grew up and deposited with an aunt and uncle in Navi Mumbai while his parents moved to the Gulf to work.
In his new, unfamiliar surroundings, Rakesh was largely unsupervised, since his guardians worked long hours as accountants. His parents called occasionally, on the weekends.
Desperate to fit in, Rakesh fell in with the wrong crowd and began experimenting with drugs. From marijuana, he migrated to heroin and began stealing money from his uncle, filching and pawning his aunt’s jewellery, even robbing small items from neighbours’ homes and conning people into contributing money for fake neighbourhood celebrations, in order to fund his habit.
The young man was finally brought in to see Dr Desai after his uncle discovered a letter from his college stating that he would not be allowed to take his year-end exams because he had not attended classes all year.
“He had developed a veneer of indifference by this time, downplaying everything, seeming unconcerned. His response to most things was, ‘Theek hai, dekha jayega (All right; we’ll see)’,” says Dr. Desai.
By this time, Rakesh had gone from a muscular teen to a skinny young man. “I worked with him for over a year, from 2013 to 2014, but he needed his parents,” Dr Desai says. “He had missed crucial years of love and affection. He felt orphaned, in a way.”
In 2014, his mother returned and took him home to UP.
But there would be no happy ending. “Last year I head that he had returned to the drugs and wayward ways,” says Dr Desai. “There is so little mental health care available outside our main cities. And so much anger and alienation in our youngsters. Everyone is aspiring to have more, be more. And when they cannot get what they aspire for, the world starts to seem hostile and they respond with aggression. Without treatment, this can become a vicious circle.”
MAIN POINTS OF THE JUVENILE JUSTICE ACT
When a child alleged to be in conflict with law is apprehended by the police, he/she will be placed under the charge of the special juvenile police or the designated child welfare police officer, who shall produce the child before the Juvenile Justice Board
Where a Board is satisfied on inquiry that a child irrespective of age has committed a petty offence, or a serious offence, or a child below the age of 16 years has committed a heinous offence it may (a) allow the child to go home after advice or admonition (b) direct the child to participate in group counselling and similar activities; (c) order the child to perform community service; (d) order the child or parents of the child to pay a fine (e) direct the child to be released on probation of good conduct (f) direct the child to be sent to a special home for a period not exceeding three years
In case of a heinous offence alleged to have been committed by a child, who has completed or is above the age of 16 years, the Board may say that there is a need for trial of the child as an adult No child in conflict with law shall be sentenced to death or for life imprisonment without the possibility of release
Read: Rise in Juvenile Crime