CARE AND SYMPATHY

A recent Supreme Court order calls for the strict implementation of the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000. Is the government listening, wonders Sonia Sarkar IN THE TELEGRAPH KOLKATTA

Life was never the same again for 16-year-old Jitesh Sen (name changed) after he spent a month in jail with a bunch of adult criminals. The police caught him for theft in the Sealdah area of Calcutta. It took more than a month for the cops to get an ossification test done, which eventually proved that Jitesh was a juvenile. And only then was he sent to a juvenile home. But by then, the boy had become more violent and stubborn, thereby lowering his chances for reform and correction.

Jitesh is not alone. There are many juveniles in conflict with the law who have been mistaken as adults and thrown into adult jails by the police. “Juvenile delinquents are often arrested and sent to jails. They are sent to juvenile homes only later, but by then their exposure to adult criminals reduce their chances of reform,” says Calcutta-based lawyer Debasish Banerjee, who deals with juvenile cases.

And that’s the reason the Supreme Court passed an interim order in October last year, directing states to set up juvenile police units in every district as per Section 63 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000. The order says that these police officers should “frequently or exclusively deal with juveniles” or should be primarily engaged in the prevention of juvenile crime or handling of juveniles. This interim order was passed while hearing a case (Sampurna Behra vs Union of India) that sought strict implementation of the JJ Act.

The JJ Act stipulates that when a juvenile is charged with an offence, he or she should be produced before a juvenile justice board to hold the inquiry in accordance with the provisions of this law. Unfortunately, neither the law nor the Supreme Court order in this regard is being taken seriously in most parts of the country.

In West Bengal, for example, there is not a single juvenile police unit, reveals Banerjee. “And that’s one of the reasons it takes longer to establish that the offender is a juvenile,” he adds.

Government officials in West Bengal, however, say that the juvenile justice system in the state is perfectly on track. “There are juvenile justice boards and child welfare committees in every district in the state,” asserts T. Kumar, principal secretary, women and child development and social welfare department, West Bengal. “Police officers are also designated to handle juvenile cases. Since the police officers get transferred to other departments, there is an impression that the juvenile police units don’t function. But these posts never remain vacant and the work doesn’t suffer.”

Bengal is not the only state, however, where experts allege lack of implementation of the JJ Act. In Delhi too, lawyers who deal with juvenile delinquency cases say that there are no police units devoted to handling these cases. “No team or officer is being designated exclusively to deal with juvenile cases,” says Anant Asthana of Human Rights Law Network.

Asthana presented Tihar Jail’s reply to an RTI application filed by the non government organisation HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, at the Delhi High Court recently. The reply stated that at least 114 juveniles were lodged in the jail between October 2010 and August 2011. They were shifted to observation homes across the city only after family members and lawyers protested that they cannot be put behind bars because they were yet to attain adulthood.

The JJ Act also lays down that the police units that deal with juvenile cases should have at least two social workers on board. This too is rarely implemented. In Delhi, for example, each unit has just a police inspector as its member and the deputy commissioner of police of the particular district as its head.

But Delhi police officials say that efforts are now being made to implement the law in its letter and spirit. “We are running a pilot project in four districts where social workers are also inducted into the police unit,” says Suman Nalwa, additional deputy commissioner of police at Delhi’s nodal police unit that looks after the functioning of the other district units.

Again, though one of the major tasks of the juvenile police units is to investigate and nab those who lure children into organised crime, “in the absence of sufficient number of police units, this too is not being carried out,” reveals Asthana.

The situation in Maharashtra is as deplorable, say experts. In fact, the Bombay High Court issued a notice to the state government after a public interest litigation was filed by a Pune-based lawyer, Rajendra Anbhule, stating that the government has failed to act upon the provisions of the JJ Act.

The PIL alleged that special homes for children in the state were not working properly. Besides, although the act calls for special homes to be set up by the state for the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents, there is just one such special home in the state, the petition states.

Says Mumbai-based senior advocate Maharukh Adenwala, “The biggest problem is the wrong assessment of the age of the offender.” Moreover, the insensitivity of the probation officers to the juveniles often make things worse, she adds.

“The act lays down that when a juvenile is arrested, the special juvenile police unit to which the juvenile is brought should inform the probation officer to enable him to obtain information on the family background of the juvenile to assist the board in its inquiry. But in reality, the probation officer barely spends sufficient time with the child. Also, these officers are often hostile,” she says.

What’s more, the lack of qualified members in the state’s child welfare committees adds to the problem. “In most cases, the committees don’t have the required five members as stated in the act,” points out Indrani Sinha, director of Sanlaap, an NGO that deals with the trafficking of young women.

Clearly, when it gave its order last October, the Supreme Court tried to set right the problems assailing the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act. In its order, the apex court also stated that the police officer in the juvenile police unit should be adequately trained to handle such cases. And the training will be provided to them under the guidance of the state legal services authorities and secretary of the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa).

“Police officers should understand the circumstances in which children come into conflict with the law and be oriented to work on the prevention of juvenile delinquency,” says U. Saratchandran, member secretary of Nalsa, which has recently sent the training guidelines to the state legal service authorities.

India is not only a signatory to the UN Convention of Child Rights but it has also ratified the same. “Yet our juvenile justice boards and child welfare committees lack sensitivity,” says Saratchandran.

Clearly, unless the attitude of the police and the social welfare department changes, juvenile offenders will continue to receive a raw deal in our country.

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120111/jsp/opinion/story_14990746.jsp

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