Milan Kumar (name changed) feels terribly depressed every time he returns from the ‘court’.
At the ‘court’ — that is what the children at north Delhi’s Sewa Kutir juvenile home call the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) hearings — Kumar’s crimes are discussed in front of dozens of other children. The word travels back to the juvenile home.
On his return, he is ridiculed for picking commuters’ pockets on city buses when he was 14. Kumar is 16 now, and sees no future for himself.
But when Sewa Kutir burned on Saturday night, he did not flee.
Furious juvenile inmates rioted, smashed furniture, set the place on fire, and wrote their names on the wall with soot from the charred objects before 33 of them fled the home.
The incident exemplifies the seething anger and hopelessness in Delhi’s seven juvenile homes.
At these homes, hundreds of poverty-driven children like Kumar who have committed petty crimes share drab dormitories with underage perpetrators of serious crimes (one such is the juvenile rapist in the December 16 gang rape).
Most of the inmates slip into the same vicious circle of crime after their release and come back to the juvenile homes, or land up in jails.
A welfare officer at Sewa Kutir, requesting anonymity, told HT that of the 200-odd juveniles he had supervised in his career, about 150 were in Tihar jail, and 20-25 had returned to the reformatories as repeat offenders.
“In my experience, only about 10% escape a life of crime,” he said. There are no official figures to back his claim.
WHAT MAKES THEM ANGRY
Mental health experts say a number of children living in the juvenile homes come from vulnerable families and a disturbed past, which sometimes triggers violent behaviour.
HT interacted with a number of children, and every one of them had a poignant story.
Most of them were either abandoned by their parents or are the sole breadwinners of their families, a pressure which they find difficult to cope with leading them to commit crimes to get fast money.
While meals are not inadequate, the mere living within the confines of four walls angers them the most.
Sewa Kutir, for instance, has a big play area but the children are not allowed to spend more than about an hour there daily.
And while their circumstances are very different from normal youngsters, they share the same ambitious streak.
They despise what is taught to them in the name of vocational training.
“I don’t like to do cooking or learn tailoring. I want to do something more meaningful, which will help me to earn a respectful livelihood once I’m out of the home,” said a 13-year old boy, who is in the reformatory for the past six months.The younger lot get bullied by the older ones.
Seniors hit the younger ones with utensils, abuse them, and force them to join their gangs and to wash their clothes.
“The entire day we are forced to stay confined within the building, which is suffocating. There is no segregation and ‘difficult children’ beat us up as guard stands there as a spectator,” another 14-year-old child said.
IS SOMEBODY LISTENING?
Counsellors are provided in each of the seven juvenile homes.
“They are supposed to reform us. But they see us as criminals who cannot be reformed,” said Kumar.
“All they want is to have someone who can listen to them patiently without judging them,” said Anant Asthana, a lawyer who works for child rights.
“But lack of skilled welfare officers and counsellors mean that their complaints fall on deaf ears. Children having criminal background need special treatment and if the welfare officer doesn’t treat them like their own children, a child can never reform.”
Outsourcing of counsellers’ jobs by the government and poor pay are cited as major reasons for the increase in incidents of violence.
“There are five or six difficult boys in each home who need special care and attention but so far they haven’t got that yet. They intimidate younger children and force them to gang-up against the staff,” said Nina Naik, a member of National Commission for Protection of Children Home (NCPCR), who visited the home on Sunday.
NCPCR members, who interact with these children regularly, say there are a number of bright children living in these homes and given an opportunity, they can do well if life.
“Some children are difficult to handle and you need a trained officer to reform them. Officers with masters in psychology and social welfare often don’t have the right exposure to deal with such children,” Raj Mangal Prasad, former chairperson of Child Welfare Committee said. One needed officer trained in child and criminal psychology, he said.
Children committing petty crimes could be allowed to be free and do community service under a probationary officer.
This humane and crucial provision of the Juvenile Justice Act is perhaps the most widely ignored one.