By Shefali Mehta
The highly eventful 2013, amid political debates around the next PM, drama that led to Delhi getting its new CM, and continued appeal for gender equality and legal acceptance of homosexuality, saw an important issue dealt with. On December 20, 2013, the Delhi High Court finally spoke suo moto on the utterly chaotic conditions of juvenile homes in the Capital. It acknowledged the mismanagement that has become a characteristic of these supposedly reformatory institutions. Looking at the frequent incidents of rioting and vandalism, the Delhi HC Bench declared: “Something is wrong. [The] System is responsible for this. There can’t be lawlessness. We can’t allow rioting on a daily basis. It means you [government] are doing nothing.”
What the Court must have had in mind was the recent incident in a North Delhi observation home where several minors escaped after eight hours rampage during which they caused rioting, arson and other damages to property. This incident took place on December 16 – exactly a year after the Nirbhaya case that sparked off debates around the minimum age for a criminal to be considered a minor. Even if we step aside the debate and assume 18 to be a fair minimum age, its usefulness to society stands on the ability of Juvenile Home s to actually reform the culprits. Failing in their tasks, they mar the very ideal that validates lighter punishment for underage criminals.
Citing interference from multiple authorities in the administration as the cause behind the mismanagement, the Court said: “Keeping in view the emergent situation, we make the director, Department of Women and Child Development as well as senior officer of Delhi Police, not less than the rank of DC, to be nominated by the police commissioner within 24 hours, personally responsible for maintenance of law and order in all the homes.” The court also directed that the children involved in heinous crimes should be segregated.
Incidents of escape and destruction of property in the homes are quite frequent. But it turns out that the first cause is usually the administration. In early August, one juvenile home saw its young inhabitants pelting stones and setting blankets to fire to protest against the bad quality of food and amenities. Officials are poorly trained to handle these children and are known to be generally high-handed in their attitudes. Bullying among the juveniles is also common. The infrastructure is poor, generally dingy and has a dull ambience.
Most of the juvenile criminals come from poor background. Circumstances that lead to criminality are often poverty or a sense of anguish that comes out in dangerous forms of anger. The special homes are not places of punishment but are meant to give a better direction to these young lives. These homes indeed provide vocational training but the children who seriously wish to better their lives are dissatisfied. They question why they should be restricted to menial work that a vocational training like sewing would get them, and why they too cannot study to become, say, an engineer like other children. Legitimate as this complaint sounds, the training provided by these special homes often becomes only a pastime rather than a serious pursuit that would shape the lives of the juveniles even after they leave the homes.
Not that there are no success stories, just that they are a rarity. When a minor is sentenced, justice has ideally a twofold purpose to serve. It has to identify and punish the guilty – this is justice to the victim. But it also has to reform the guilty. Considered too young to be completely responsible for the crime, it is society at large that is held responsible for leading the child astray and a proper constructive environment is given for the reformation of the minor. But if the very place pushes them further into criminality, where the adult world begins to appear even bleaker and ruthless, we should be worried about our society. Anger in young criminals needs proper counseling to be channelized well and to be converted into creative power. Bad amenities and rough treatment thwart any possibility of reformation of the young delinquent if he finds only violence as a means of getting what he is entitled to.
Shefali is a sceptic by nature, with a critical eye on culture, ideologies and evolving trends of societies. A student of English Literature at Delhi University, she is particularly interested in the lives and history of people living in the Indian subcontinent and contemporary issues like terrorism, exile, human rights and global capitalism. Mostly interested in theory, she also likes to explore regional cinema. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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