The government’s reactions in the wake of the outrage following the Delhi gang rape and Shakti Mills case in Mumbai — proposing tougher laws for juveniles committing heinous crimes like rape and murder — are at best knee-jerk. Its ostrich-like approach in this regard focuses only on the punishment aspect, while conveniently avoiding the need to address the more urgent matter of dealing with the causes for the rise in juvenile crimes.
Like any contentious issue, this, too, has its fair share of conflicting opinions. On one hand is the Supreme Court’s emphasis on a nuanced approach, which calls for ascertaining the level of maturity and understanding of a juvenile delinquent (16-18 years of age) before he/she faces a trial by the Juvenile Justice Board for serious crimes. On the other, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has come out strongly against the Women and Child Development (WCD) ministry’s thrust on punishment, citing the violation of United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In the midst of this high-octane debate, the figures emerging from the first ever census of Mumbai’s street children are likely to be forgotten. Yet they tell a story of neglect and brutality that 37,059 children living off the streets of the city are routinely exposed to. Stalked by hunger and sexual predators, these homeless kids are forced into labour, with the government turning a blind eye to its failure in rehabilitating them and effectively implementing the much-publicised Right to Education Act. The census conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the NGO Action Aid has thrown up several shocking facts. Nearly 15 per cent of these children are drug addicts, hooked to tobacco, shoe whitener and boot polish to escape the depressing realities of their lives. Two out of every five kids have suffered from some form of abuse — verbal, physical and sexual — with no one to look up to for justice and protection.
Left to fend for themselves and exposed to the horrors of life early on, it becomes obvious that some of these children will grow up to be dreaded criminals. The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2011 data registering a phenomenal rise in serious crimes by juveniles — a 34 per cent growth in rapes, a 63.5 per cent rise in involvement in dowry deaths and 53.5 per cent increase in abduction of women, over its 2010 figures — show the devastating consequences of a heartless system that can only bay for blood in its quest for justice.
Instead of taking active interest in the well-being of delinquents — setting up proper homes where kids could be educated and imparted vocational training — state administrations are facilitating the process of these children turning into hardened criminals. At these ill-equipped homes, a first-time offender gets his first lessons in underworld crime from the older boys who too had been initiated in a similar manner. It’s a vicious cycle that draws vulnerable, impressionable minds into a life which appears to be glamorous and easy-going initially, but then closes the doors for a return to normal life. This then becomes the fate of these children, which more often than not, ends in violent deaths, either in police encounters or in gang-rivalry. The lesser punishment would be long years in jail before they come back to the only life they know: that of crime.