The rebellion by so-called juveniles, who were actually overage inmates, in Hardoi on January 16 was the symptom of a far deeper malaise that has been neglected for far too long.
Take the case of the state’s only special ‘juvenile’ home at Etawah. Here, all the inmates are adults. The centre is meant to house convicted juveniles from across Uttar Pradesh.
Under the juvenile justice system, while juveniles are sent to a special home after conviction, they are kept at observation homes during trial.
“One shouldn’t be surprised if the Hardoi incident is repeated. Such inmates are not children who can be reformed through corrective measures meant for minors,” says a child rights activist.
The staff on duty at the special home agree that handling the overage inmates is a big challenge.
“Such inmates pose a threat to our lives. Even their petty arguments result in violence. Managing such situations that crop up regularly is a tough task,” says a staff member of the special home.
That is why most of those deployed at the home either seek transfer or go on leave. Only a few stay back. No wonder, nearly a dozen posts in the home, including those of a psychologist, trainer and case workers, are vacant.
“We have no option but to accommodate everyone who is directed by the Juvenile Justice Board to serve a term at the special home. Be the inmate a five-year-old boy or a 35-year-old man, we simply have no say in the process,” says Akanksha Agarwal, district probation officer (DPO) of Etawah.
While the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 prescribes segregation of inmates according to the age and intensity of crimes committed by them, the only home of the state lacks the infrastructure to comply with the provisions of the act.
Currently, 10 inmates share four rooms of the special home. They are served four meals a day and are entitled to vocational training and primary education. A television with a cable connection has been installed for their recreation.
The act also says a juvenile can only stay at the special home till he ceases to be a juvenile. Also, the trial must be completed within four months. But implementation of this rule is a far cry here.
The backlog at the juvenile justice boards is so high that cases dating back to 1980s are still being tried.
As for a way out of the current situation where adults rub shoulders with genuine juveniles, Anshmali Sharma, director of Childline Lucknow and a member of the Child Welfare Committee, says, “The Delhi government has initiated ‘place of safety’ for those juveniles who become adults by the time they are convicted. Why can’t we adopt a similar method? Allowing 30-year-olds to stay with those below 18 defeats the very purpose of the special homes.”