Inside a juvenile home

What will the juvenile justice amendment Bill achieve? We met a 17-year-old in a ‘bachcha’ jail, where the inmates need much more than legislation


Inmates at an observation home for juveniles in conflict with law in New Delhi. Photo:  Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Inmates at an observation home for juveniles in conflict with law in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

When he realized the man was dead, there was the question of getting rid of the body. It was not something the 17-year-old had done before. The corpse was heavy, of a man twice his age and size. He was not sure what to do, but the river was close by. Four hours later, he was caught trying to dump the body into the river. At around 2am, as the police took him away, the dead man’s family ran after the van, screaming, “God will punish you for what you have done, you will suffer all your life.”

For weeks after, this scene would often wake him up in the middle of the night… “I couldn’t sleep,” the teenager recalls, sitting in his dormitory at an observation home for juveniles in conflict with law in New Delhi. If he had been a year older at the time of the crime, an adult, he would have been punished with life in prison, or death. Instead, he was tried by the Juvenile Justice Board, whose stated aim is reformation, not punishment. Juveniles charged with committing a crime are sent to observation homes first. If convicted of serious crimes like murder, they are transferred to a special remand home where they can be kept for a maximum of three years.

On 7 May, the Lok Sabha passed the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, which seeks to allow children in the 16-18 age group to be tried as adults for heinous crimes. It is yet to be passed by the Rajya Sabha.

In doing this, the cabinet has gone against the recommendations of a parliamentary committee. After the Nirbhaya case—the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi in December 2012 by six men, including a 17-year-old—there were calls for reducing the upper age limit for juveniles from 18 to 16. A government-established committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice J.S. Verma rejected the demand. In July 2013, the Supreme Court dismissed eight public petitions asking for the age limit to be lowered to 16.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the highest increase in incidents of crime committed by juveniles in 2013 was reported in these categories: assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty, 132.3%; insult to the modesty of women, 70.5%; and rape, 60.3%. Of the 43,506 juveniles arrested for different crimes in 2013, 66.3% were in the 16-18 age group, and 50.2% came from poor families, with annual income of up to Rs.25,000. Most were illiterate or had attended only primary school. The 17-year-old was enrolled at a primary school but hardly attended any classes; he says he cannot even read the alphabet.

Home truths

One hundred and fifty boys live in the observation home where the 17-year-old shares the dormitory with 15 other boys around his age. The room is small but airy, with 26 windows, and bare mattresses on the floor. He has a scar at the top of his head—someone lodged a knife in his head during a fight.

Except for the high compound walls topped with rolls of razor wire, iron window grills in rooms and locked metal doors, there is nothing out of the ordinary about this two-storey observation home. The walls have artwork: palm-print impressions, drawings of goddesses, flowers and animals. There are no policemen or guns in the building. Instead of cells, the rooms are called dormitories. The juveniles call it “bachcha jail” (children’s prison).

The 17-year-old boy is here now for a second offence; the inquiry is pending. Last year, he was released four months after his apprehension in the murder case.

He sneers, recalling his days at the observation home last time. “It was like what you hear happens in colleges…the seniors beat you up.” He never looks you in the eye when he speaks.

Across India, juvenile homes have the direst of reputations. A 2013 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), “India’s Hell Holes: Child Sexual Assault In Juvenile Justice Homes”, has this to say: “It will not be an understatement to state that juvenile justice homes….have become India’s hell holes where inmates are subjected to sexual assault and exploitation, torture and ill-treatment, apart from being forced to live in inhuman conditions.” The report goes on to highlight 39 cases of repeated sexual assault on children in juvenile justice homes, including government-run observation homes, children’s homes, shelter homes and orphanages.

ACHR’s director Suhas Chakma, the author of the report, says there is a need for proper inspection committees, as prescribed by the Juvenile Justice (Care And Protection Of Children) Act, 2000: “No frequent inspections happen, there is a large number of unregistered childcare homes, and there is hardly any segregation of juveniles based on their offence, age and sometimes even sex.” The Act mandates segregation on the basis of age and the nature of offence.

The home we visited does not fit this description, largely because of its location in the country’s capital. But move out of the city, and things are very different.

In December 2013, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) ordered an investigation into allegations of physical abuse in a juvenile observation home in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. The allegations were made by a 17-year-old boy, who was among 43 children who escaped from the home that month. He alleged that the mass escape was prompted by repeated instances of physical and sexual abuse of juveniles by older youths living in the observation home. In February, in one of the biggest escapes of its kind, 91 inmates of a state government-run boys’ juvenile home in Meerut fled. Some were arrested again.

“Why shouldn’t they run from here? It is a confinement. They haven’t opted for this. These children need something else…they need family,” says Premodaya Khakha, superintendent, Adharshila Observation Home for Boys–II, Kingsway Camp, New Delhi. “You expect an institute to create magic. We have failed to provide care to them when they need it the most. When the support is continued outside the institution, only then will any change come,” says Khakha.

If the most important enabling aspects of the Act are subverted in this manner, is it fair to lower the age for serious punishment? Kailash Satyarthi, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for his work against child labour, told The Hindu last month: “Next time when you see a child begging on the street, remember that under the Juvenile Justice Act they are eligible for rescue and protection. But how many of us even know that?”

There are other challenges as well; for most experts working in the field, one of the biggest hurdles is reintegrating the children into the social mainstream (the single stated goal of all efforts under the Act). Most juveniles in conflict with the law come from fractured, violent environments, and go back to these after their release.

“For transformation, you at least need six months to two years to work through the defences of the people,” says Rajat Mitra, a clinical psychologist, and the director of non-governmental organization Swanchetan Society for Mental Health. “In Scandinavian countries, you have multidisciplinarian teams which have regular case studies. They think of individual strategy for a person and then have proper follow-up.”

Going back

The Delhi teenager’s family moved to the Capital four years ago, from a small town in Uttar Pradesh. He and his family—mother, two sisters and a brother—live in a single-room house in an overcrowded, impoverished area. Nothing there can be kept secret because everybody knows everybody, he says. “Your manhood depended on how good you were in fighting back.”

Soon after they moved to Delhi, his father left the family. For a few months, he would send money, but that stopped too. He saw his father physically abuse his mother. He was under the influence of drugs when he was apprehended for the ongoing case. Before he was released on bail in the murder case, some of the boys he had befriended in the observation home exchanged numbers with him. Most of them were addicts and repeat offenders.

When he went back home, he says, he faced open hostility. “How was I supposed to live with them when they constantly taunted me? Everyone said I was a shame to the entire extended family. That they wished I’d died instead.”

Ruchi Sinha, associate professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and a project director for the Resource Cell for Juvenile Justice at the institute, says: “From the society, to police, to the observation home, everyone makes them feel they are not worthy of anything. Juveniles are the least priority. Probation officers are paid very little. NGOs don’t want to do extra work.

“Once they are released, they not only have to deal with the shame, but most likely also team up with the children involved in heinous crimes who they’d met inside,” Sinha adds. “This is where we lose the child forever.”

Recently, Khakha, while going through the profiles of juveniles at the observation home he supervises, found that 23 of around 100 were from one locality—a resettlement colony where most people are daily wagers. “What do you expect them to do in the confinement? They team up and obviously gangs are formed,” says Khakha. On our visit to Khakha’s observation home, we found that 23 of the 139 juveniles there were repeat offenders, and most were from the city’s economically weaker and vulnerable areas.

The Act covers two categories of children: those “in need of care and protection” and “juveniles in conflict with law”.

“A child offender is a product of circumstances,” says Amod K. Kanth, founder of Prayas, a child rights and welfare NGO. “All the juveniles are children in need of care and protection first, then they become juveniles in conflict with law.” Just 5% or less of children happen to be juveniles in conflict with law, he adds.

The Bill’s central premise is an assessment of the mental state of the accused at the time of the crime: Was he or she reasoning like an adult, or not? It will be the hardest of tasks.

The discussion around juveniles and heinous crime such as the 2012 Delhi gang rape also raises questions about guilt and remorse. A Columbia Law Review study, published in 2002, on remorseless children and the expectations of the law, researched the cases of juveniles charged with violent crimes in the US. It found that some juveniles appeared to be in a kind of dissociative state and failed to understand the gravity of what they had done. “But prosecutors and judges interpreted their strange reactions—falling asleep after the crime, giggling, rapping—as signs of irreparable depravity.”

The study, by law professor Martha Grace Duncan, found that courts looked for remorse in “psychologically naïve ways, without regard for defense mechanisms, developmental stages, or the ambiguity that inheres in human behavior.”

This time, the teenager is attending skill-enhancement classes. He is more tolerant towards teachers and other juveniles. But he isn’t sure what his future will look like.

When asked about his dreams, he shrugs, “I have never done anything I am proud of. Probably doing something that my mother is proud of should be my dream…I don’t know,” he says.

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