Despite stories of rehabilitation and hope, we seem averse to giving second chances to delinquents

It’s Saturday and the women at Lajpat Nagar market are purposefully looking for weekend bargains. One particular stall is selling the Connaught Place variety of jewellery, but at one-fourth the price. Women aggressively rummage through. Prakash Yadav* keeps an eye out for shoplifters.

Chubby, with a perpetual smile, he magically produces hot tea for me as soon as I introduce myself. I am almost certain that this may not be my first time at Prakash’s stall. Little do I, or the scores of buyers rummaging through the wares, know that as teenagers, Prakash and his cousin Rohit* spent time at a facility for juvenile delinquents. They were accused of murder. The duo has also spent time at a facility for juvenile delinquents.

Prakash is clearly too busy to take his eyes or mind off the throngs at his stall. I decide to meet him the next day.

Sunday afternoon in north Delhi, and a number of young boys are lazing in the light sun. Mattresses have been laid out to air and the boys are scattered across the playing field. “Namaste,” they grin at me. At the other end, about 30 others are boisterously washing their uniforms and hanging them out to dry on the volleyball net and football goalpost.

This is an observation home in Delhi, for juveniles in conflict with the law. With the paintings of Gandhi and APJ Abdul Kalam on the walls, and the impish smiles on the faces around, you wouldn’t guess it is a facility for boys accused of thefts, kidnappings, murders and rapes. Until you notice the exceptionally high walls with barbed wire that hem the field.

I accompany Prakash and Rohit inside the facility. This Sunday is also Rohit’s 28th birthday and the two cousins are back to visit the place they called home for three years.

Since the brutal gangrape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012, India has seen an outpouring of public criticism for sexual violence and a demand for death penalty for the perpetrators. Much of this movement was led by Pandey’s parents. They conveyed their understanding of justice to Parliament — only capital punishment for the rapists and no less.

This mass movement had a direct impact on Parliament, which passed the anti-rape laws in 2013. The punishment for gangrape went up to a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life imprisonment. For repeat offenders, the death sentence was made possible.

This pressure was kept up and, barely a week before the third death anniversary of the student last month, Parliament passed another law. This time, it ratcheted up the punishment for juveniles accused of heinous crimes such as rape and murder.

Previously, anyone under 18 years was considered a child, and would not face the same procedure of trial and punishment as adults, irrespective of their crime. By this new ‘Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014,’ those between 16 and 18 years of age may be tried as adults in the case of heinous or serious crimes, although they will not receive death penalty or life imprisonment. It means putting minors through the adult penal system of investigations, trials and jails.

Only a few months before this was passed by Parliament, the Supreme Court had elucidated the objective of the Juvenile Justice Act. Responding to a petition by Subramanian Swamy and Aman Hingorani on the age of juveniles, it said that the objective of the Act is “to ensure their rehabilitation in society and to enable the young offenders to become useful members of the society in later years”. But in less than a year, the new Bill puts a question mark on these basic intentions.

The debate has given voice to the viewpoints of politicians, lawyers, sociologists, activists and protestors. But “children lack a voice in the political process. Their rights cannot be trampled upon by misinformed public opinion or majoritarian politics,” explains Arlene Manoharan from the Centre for Child and the Law, Bengaluru.

Given that it is too sensitive to talk to current juveniles apprehended for crimes, what can former juveniles tell us about the system — how is life at these facilities, and how does it change once they are released? In other words, is the system meeting the stated aims of reform, rehabilitation, re-integration and re-socialisation?

Talking to former juveniles in Delhi gives us reason to pause and ask if rehabilitation is really such an abrogation of justice.

Root issues

Fazal* greets us warmly and leads us up many dark flights of stairs in Gandhinagar, to his workplace. This East Delhi neighbourhood is full of garment outlets, where clothes are being stitched or sold. In this small factory, reams of denim and incomplete jeans are lying around. Today, Fazal supervises the men who sew those jeans and earns ₹19,000 a month. But at the age of 16, he did time for murder. His story is similar to those of Prakash and Rohit, where some of his friends were involved in a scuffle that ended in a fatal stabbing. Fazal was standing around with that group. When the police came, they rounded up everyone including the 16-year-old. “I was so afraid after I was picked up by the police… my friendships got me into trouble. I decided to keep only good company and work hard after being released, for the sake of my mother and sisters,” he says. Fazal is quick to add that he worked at garments factories even before he was apprehended for murder. “I learnt a lot more of tailoring and embroidery at the juveniles’ home. I also learnt to be more disciplined… All this helped me when I was released after 18 months,” he says.

Fazal is lucky to have found a steady job. But a regular income after serving time in a correctional home doesn’t compensate for the problems that plague the juvenile justice progress.

On one hand, the root causes of crime need to be eliminated. Social workers explain that desperation brought upon by poverty, substance abuse, lack of family support, and lack of access to education often propels minors to crime. On the other hand, once crimes are committed and the perpetrators apprehended, the system is required to pay close attention to their time at these observation homes, and their return to society after release. This is a critical period, one where the State is supposed to provide rehabilitation. But the failings here often feed back into the root causes of crime itself.

Evil at large

In the Bill introduced in Lok Sabha, Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development, lists some of the problems that prompted a review of the existing law, including “increasing incidents of abuse of children in institutions, inadequate facilities, quality of care and rehabilitation measures in Homes, high pendency of cases.” These are issues the Parliament could have addressed. “The earlier law was meant for rehabilitation. The new law is aimed at criminalisation. Nothing changes for the condition of juveniles at present,” says Ved Kumari, professor of law at Delhi University. There is also a staffing crisis. “In our field experience we have rarely found functionaries who fit the bill. They are almost always demotivated and consider these as punishment postings. They do not get training and support, but are blamed when children escape or engage in violence,” says Manoharan.

With the new law, the state is seemingly penalising the public for its own failings. This is similar to the recent Supreme Court ruling disqualifying those without formal education from contesting civic elections in Haryana. The system falls short of addressing both crime and punishment. “Our experience demonstrates that a majority of these children would have a psycho-social history that reflects on the failure of the State in some way. Should we then place the entire blame on the child?” asks Manoharan. “What was required is greater accountability of the State to children,” she adds.

These arguments don’t sway those who have been protesting on the streets for stricter punishment. Vikas Tyagi is one of them. As part of the ‘16 December Kranti’ he has been keeping vigil at their long-term outpost in Jantar Mantar. For him, even this new law does not go far enough, “The Juvenile Act needs to be amended, allowing for life imprisonment and death penalty,” he says.

Flip-side story 

Tyagi might be surprised if he hears Prakash and Rohit discussing their time in the observation home. Rohit, who now runs a successful business making flower arrangements for weddings, proudly shows me hundreds of photos on his laptop. Both Prakash and Rohit passed Std X exams while at the home. “Our motivation was that we must race ahead in life to compensate for this setback. No matter how bad your environment is, you have the ability to choose the right thing,” he says.

Neither of them thinks the new law will help. Rohit laughs as he says, “We were both wrongly put in Tihar Jail for a while, and we heard other convicts talk about stealing trucks, and who the don of certain areas was. At the home, the staff and counsellors really cared for us. They tried to create a better environment.” Prakash adds, “I was 16 at the time of the crime. If I had been sent to Tihar, I would have not come out reformed. I would have suffered.”

Rohit describes how, for a long while after his release, neighbours avoided him and gossiped about him. Finding a bride was also difficult. He faced rejection from families the moment he told them about his past. But today, things are better. “Today I have a car, a bike, a small family and my own business. I have everything I need,” says Prakash. Despite the deficiencies of the system, it somehow worked out well for these young men. And that’s why they believe that every child could do with a chance.

*Names changed to protect privacy

(Anoo Bhuyan is a Delhi-based journalist)