Activists Accuse India of Violating UN Convention on Child Rights
– Civil rights groups and child welfare activists have strongly protested against the enactment of a new Juvenile Justice Act by the Indian parliament, lowering the age of a legally defined juvenile for trial from 18 to 16- years old in heinous crimes cases.
Human rights activists and people working for child welfare say reducing the age would be against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which India ratified in 1992.
According to the existing law in India, formed in 2000, the accused under the age of 18 cannot be given any penalty higher than three years, nor be tried as an adult and sent to an adult jail. The new law also treats all children under the age of 18 similarly, except for one difference. It states that any one between 16 and 18 who commits a heinous offence may be tried as an adult.
The ongoing heated debates and protests started against the backdrop of the higher appeal courts’ permission to release one of the main accused in the high profile 2012 Delhi gang-rape case. The boy was a juvenile, from a reform home at the end of his three-year remand period.
The case relates to a horrific incident on 16 December 2012, when a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern was beaten and gang raped in a moving private transport bus in which she was travelling with a male friend at night.
Dr. Pushkar Raj, well-known human rights leader and former General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, said that the move of the government to pass tougher laws on juveniles was ill-conceived and would not achieve the intended purpose of reducing crimes amongst juveniles.
“Though juvenile crime has slightly risen in India in last few years, it stands half as compared to US and Australia. While in India it hovers under 1500 per 100,000 of juvenile population, in the US and Australia it is well above 3000 per 100,000,” he told IPS.
The National Crime Records Bureau data says that there has been an increase in crimes committed by juveniles, especially by those in the 16 to 18 age group during the period 2003 to 2013.
The data shows that the percentage of juvenile crimes has increased from one per cent in 2003 to 1.2 per cent in 2013. During the same period, 16-18 year olds accused of crimes as a percentage of all juveniles accused of crimes increased from 54 per cent to 66 per cent.
Experts, however, say that the new law would go against the global commitment of India to child rights.
Shoba Koshy, Chairperson, Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told IPS that whatever may be the logic behind the lowering of age, it is not acceptable as seen from a child rights perspective. She expressed the apprehension that the new law would be counterproductive until and unless correct remedial measures are taken.
“We have committed ourselves both nationally and internationally to protect child rights up to the age of 18 years.
Therefore, the new amended law is not suitable to this norm. Even if you reduce the age to 16 and then a 15-year old commits a similar crime, would you again reduce the age,” she asked.
“There are several unattended issues concerning children which need to be looked into. We should help our children to grow up to be good individuals by providing systems that will give them the care and protection they deserve in their childhood and by imparting proper education and moral values. The government should allocate more funds for strengthening infrastructure facility to develop reformative and rehabilitative mechanisms under the Juvenile Justice Law, “she said.
The National Human Rights Commission also disagreed with the government move and sent its disagreement in writing to the government.
Media reported that the rights panel opined that every boy at 16 years would be treated as juvenile. “If he is sent to jail, there is no likelihood of any reformation and he will come out a hardened criminal. “
However, participating in the debate in Parliament, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said that under the new law any juvenile aged between 16 and 18 years will stay in an institution meant for housing adolescent offenders till the age of 21 years, whatever the sentence.
A study report in 2013 on ‘Factors Underlying Juvenile Delinquency and Positive Youth Development Programs’, prepared by Kavita Sahney of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology at Rourkela in Odisha, revealed that offences committed by delinquents were primarily due to the combination of various individual and environmental variables, individual risk factors of the delinquents, negligence and ignorance of the parents, peer influence, poor socio-economic status, family pressure and lack of proper socialization.
A section of women activists and members of parliament believe that the new law neither gives safety to women from crimes against them nor gives protection to the children involved in such cases.
Dr. T.N. Seema, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and parliament member in the Upper House, expressed deep anguish over the “encroachment” by the government on the rights of children.
“Most of the juvenile homes in the country do not have a good atmosphere and enough physical facilities to reside delinquent children. In such a situation, how can we reform juveniles?” she told IPS.
T. P. Lakshmi, an activist at Nagarkovil in Tamil Nadu, said that the government succumbed to the “pressure tactics” of a section of women’s groups “taking mileage from the Delhi rape case.” “It is unfortunate that one or two rape cases determine the fate of all the boys accused in juvenile cases in the country,” she said.