Minority report: Why juvenile crime is on the rise

Published on Sep 25, 2022 11:27 PM IST

Shaikh and his friends stole a bike last year to fund their habit; he got caught and a criminal case was registered against him

After detaining him, when assistant police inspector Nanvnath Kale, from Shivaji Nagar police station, learnt about his story and mother’s struggle, he counselled the teen and educated him about the consequence of going on the wrong side of the law. Shaikh was remorseful, and after spending a week at Dongri Children’s Home (also known as Observation Centre), released on bail (HT File)
After detaining him, when assistant police inspector Nanvnath Kale, from Shivaji Nagar police station, learnt about his story and mother’s struggle, he counselled the teen and educated him about the consequence of going on the wrong side of the law. Shaikh was remorseful, and after spending a week at Dongri Children’s Home (also known as Observation Centre), released on bail (HT File)
ByVijay Kumar Yadav

MumbaiSixteen-year-old Fardeen Shaikh, the eldest of three siblings, has been living with his mother in Baba Nagar, Govandi, since she separated from her husband who was a drunkard. Given her long hours at a zari shop to make ends meet, she was compelled to leave the kids to themselves. Shaikh, who failed the Class IX exams eventually took to marijuana and other cheap drugs, led by friends who were addicts.

Shaikh and his friends stole a bike last year to fund their habit; he got caught and a criminal case was registered against him.

After detaining him, when assistant police inspector Nanvnath Kale, from Shivaji Nagar police station, learnt about his story and mother’s struggle, he counselled the teen and educated him about the consequence of going on the wrong side of the law. Shaikh was remorseful, and after spending a week at Dongri Children’s Home (also known as Observation Centre), released on bail. He now runs a small vehicle washing unit and supports his family.

Shaikh was one of the few fortunate kids who was able to put his life together after a brief spell in crime.

Many minors who are caught in the loop of drugs and criminal offences are unable to emerge from it, driven by circumstances defined by poverty, poor living conditions, illiteracy, and in some cases, a fetish for bravado.

Statistics show an upward rise in numbers among minors from the lower economic strata. The trend is of concern especially after the pandemic-induced lockdown imposed in 2020.

Officials from the home in Dongri, noted that since schools were shut at the time, many children from this demographic dropped out – some switched to drugs and ultimately took to crime, thereby contributing to the rise in the number of juvenile offenders caught by the police this year.

Last year, around 340 children in conflict with law were lodged at the Dongri facility, with an average admission of around 28 new kids every month. The figure stood at 335 till September 21, with a monthly average of nearly 40 new kids. June registered 51 offenders -- highest in a month so far.

Children on charges of petty crimes generally get bail between one and three weeks, while serious or habitual offenders are kept in the observation home for long.

Currently, the Dongri Children’s Home is housing 70 children in conflict with law, of which 17-18 are facing charges of serious or heinous crimes, such as murder and attempt to murder. Earlier, at any given time in the year, the facility had three to five such cases.

The kids belong to the slum pockets of Govandi-Shivaji Nagar, Baiganwadi, Mankhurd, Dharavi, Antop Hill, Wadala TT, Bhandup, Malwani etc.

The drug network

Rehan Qureshi, 16, was detained by cops around six months ago in a drug consumption case. He spent 10 days inside the correction home. His father runs a scrap shop in Rafiq Nagar, where Rehan helps in sorting scrap. He is the fourth of 10 siblings who dropped out of junior college as his father had no money to support his education.

Officers from Shivaji Nagar police station tried to pull him out of addiction with the help of a local NGO but failed, as he continued to commit thefts to fund his addiction.

Children like Rafiq turn to cheap drugs like gard, buttons, ganja and adulterated MD, which are easily available in the area. A stolen mobile phone will help a kid buy two-three days’ supply, said a police officer.

Counselling the minors has revealed how small groups of petty criminals and drug peddlers in the eastern suburbs exploit them. The rogues use the kids to carry out the thefts so that they remain hidden from cops’ radar; and when the children are nabbed, they are sent to correction homes for a short time. On release, it’s back to business.

“The children are aware of the degree of punishment for criminal acts committed by an underage person and also the judiciary’s leniency towards them,” said Rahul Kanthikar, superintendent at the Dongri Children’s Home, underscoring how this unwittingly provides a safety net for the offenders.

Seasoned criminals encourage a kid to consume substances, turn him into an addict and then use him to supply drugs to their clients for a commission, which the minor uses to pay for his addiction, said a police officer involved in anti-narcotics operations.

Sheetal Gaokar, a counsellor with Ashiyana Foundation, which works with Children’s Aid Society, said, “The petty criminals keep tabs on the dates of the juvenile’s cases and their bail proceedings. The moment they are out of the observation home, they are brought back into the circle.”

Inspector Jabbar Tamboli, from Shivaji Nagar police station, observed, entering the drug distribution network is a steppingstone to bigger crimes. “It is not unusual for them to keep small weapons in their pockets. They eventually adopt a casual approach towards crime – committing petty crime is not a big deal,” said Tamboli. “We have seen innocent children turn into hardcore criminals. They then become involved in rivalries among different groups – and thus a first serious criminal case gets registered in their name.”

A lifestyle choice

They may live in impoverished circumstances, but their eyes are rooted to the flash and shimmer of the good life.

There are quick ways to make money to fund a lifestyle, symbolised by owning an expensive mobile phone, cutting a birthday cake with a sword, driving an expensive bike, or spending money on friends and girlfriends – all to project a certain notion of coolth on various social media platforms.

Sometimes murder is all too easy for these kids, which the children’s home superintendent, Rahul Kanthikar, termed a “worrisome mentality”.

“They said they gain respect in their group when they commit a murder -- being called a ‘Bhai’ was never more alluring. It is a status symbol, and they continue with it, for constant applause in their group,” Kanthikar said.

Seventeen-year-old Swapnil, from the slums of Bhandup, picked up drinking from his father. A Class VIII dropout, he eventually turned to drugs. His mother worked as a caretaker. After his father died of an illness, he spiralled out of control. Two days after his death, a disturbed Swapnil had a quarrel with someone in his locality and assaulted him brutally. Cops detained him in the case and sent him to a children’s home. His mother, upset over her son’s violent act and addiction, distanced herself from him.

When he stepped out of the observation home, he was lured by anti-socials into committing assaults, chain snatching and thefts. Once his aunt intervened by taking him away to Solapur but it was of no use. He was back in the game soon.

“Swapnil is facing three criminal cases. During his counselling, it emerged he had committed all those crimes to gain respect. He was aware of the virtues of leading a ‘normal’ life, which he considered tough. A life in crime has people fearing him – it is easy, and he confessed to being happy in it,” said Gaokar.

Kanthikar called attention to the fragile state of minds of these kids – when they are brought to the facility they show a complete disinterest in life. “They are neither scared of death nor do they have any interest in living – they have no hopes and dreams,” he said, elucidating how they become susceptible to preying thereafter.

Deputy commissioner of police, Zone 6, Krishnakanth Upadhyay, felt “all possible factors behind the crimes need to be observed from multiple dimensions”.

For instance, why are these kids so fearless?

Upadhyay said unlike in the past, these days police arrests occur only when a serious crime is committed, which call for punishment of over seven years. “So, if there is no fear of arrest for small crimes, there would be no deterrence. We must acknowledge this when we look at an upward swing in crime numbers. The decision (of not making arrests in lesser serious crimes) was made with the intention of minimising instances of police harassments, but we must also see the other side of the coin,” he said.

Upadhyay threw light on the terrible living conditions of the slums that birth the young criminals. The kids are victims of homelessness, live cheek by jowl next to filthy open nullahs in densely populated and polluted neighbourhoods.

“Life can be challenging there. Many do drugs and start on alcohol just to survive the muck and stench, and the pathetic living conditions,” said Upadhyay. “If parents are in the habit, kids just follow them.”

Life off the tracks

A children’s home official has observed that many parents from the Shivajinagar-Govandi area and other slums have contemplated leaving their habitats to give their children a better life.

Parents of 17-year-old Altaf Ansari are concerned about three of their 10 kids’ future. Ansari is a fruit seller and lives with his wife and kids in the Shivaji Nagar-Govandi area. His three sons have dropped out of school, are drug addicts and facing criminal cases. Altaf and his 16-year-old brother recently got out from Dongri Children’s Home while their third brother is still in Arthur Road Jail.

A quarrel with a person over a petty issue led to a brutal assault, which landed him in the children’s home.

“My wife and I were busy making a living to provide for our kids; so, we could not keep a close eye on them. They fell into wrong company. Despite my insistence on learning they lost interest in school,” said Altaf’s 56-year-old father.

“I am thinking of moving from here as this place would turn my kids into hardcore criminals. But we can’t restrict them from meeting their friends in the old area. We are poor and will face survival issues everywhere, especially if we start from scratch,” said the father, underlining his apprehensions. “Seeing your kids’ name in police records is very disturbing; kids are seldom aware of parents’ struggle.”

Police inspector Jabbar Tamboli said, “The present population in my police station’s jurisdiction is three times of what is presented in government records. We need another police station in this area.”

Most people here live in abject poverty and are dependent on garbage sorting work in Deonar dumping ground; some drive autorickshaws.

“A rickshaw driver with five to six kids needs to work the whole day to put food on the table for his family. Parents have no support system to look after the kids – this leads to alienation from a protective environment and school dropouts,” he said.

The way forward

Counsellors expressed the need of a specially designed multi-dimensional programme to fix the problem.

“These issues cannot be solved by only police-enforced laws. We need programmes with long-term vision for this demographic – why kids lose interest in school and the negligence of parents. Instead of forcing them into schools, government should create programmes for them that would help identify and develop their special skills,” Kanthikar said. “Social workers, doctors and teachers can be roped in for the purpose – if we do not wake up now, these kids could be committing heinous crimes on the streets of Mumbai.”

(Names of the minors have been changed to protect their identity)

BOX

Government-speak

· Around 28,000 children lost their single parent and around 840 children lost both parents during the pandemic. DWCD provided 5 lakh from PM Cares, for the kids’ education.

· Around 70% minors admitted to Dongri observation home, Umarkhadi, Mumbai, are addicts. Hence there was a need of providing de- addiction services to these children as soon as they joined institution.

· Phirti Pathak mobile squad: A pilot to be conducted in six districts -- Pune, Mumbai, Mumbai suburban, Thane, Nagpur and Nashik—where child-friendly vans will be introduced in each hotspot area of the district. The van will have two caretakers, a teacher and a nurse to ensure the safety of the children; those in need will be provided support.

· IT-enabled Juvenile Justice Information System: It will help in real-time monitoring of children whose actions are in conflict with the law and who are in need of care and protection.

(From the department of women and child development (DWCD), Maharashtra)

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