He’s seventeen and a half. A series of parallel welts run up his arms, rising in ridges from his dark skin — mementos of knife fights and blade slashes. He returned the previous night from a juvenile detention centre. It was the fourth time he’d been arrested in the past two-and-a-half years. The charge this time was attempted murder. He had brawled with a group of boys who had “come to settle some old scores”.
He says he’s happy to be back here in the narrow alleys of Trilokpuri in East Delhi. He enjoys eating eggs, so his mother made him some for dinner. Still, he glances nervously around him at the women and children peering from the balconies and terraces overhead.
In this crowd, he’s alone. Disdained by society, but, more importantly, ill-served by a juvenile justice system that is insensitive to any need beyond the most basic. This is a system that barely puts up any pretence of following through with its rehabilitative purpose. In its indifference, it has failed and continues to fail the city’s children.
Back in December last year, the Delhi gangrape brought juvenile crime under intense scrutiny. With it came a clamour for harsher punishments and demands that 16- year-olds be tried as adults. Opinions seesawed between the bloodthirsty and the kneejerk, between blaming the kids and blaming the system.
On the one hand, anecdotal evidence indicated that juvenile crime in Delhi had been increasing. Children seemed to be coming of age faster, moving into crime by their mid-teens. Were harsher punishments the solution? On the other, critics of the system were quick to put the blame on the brutality juveniles have to face in shelter homes in Delhi, both government-run and private.
These homes, they said, were overcrowded and understaffed. Drug abuse was rampant, as was sodomy and rape. This was an exaggeration. No one denies that in Delhi there have been brutal incidents in juvenile homes, but these have been few and far between. Contrary to what was being reported, the system was not evil. Children were bullied, usually by older boys, but were not tortured by officials. The food might not have been the best, but there was enough of it. In fact, conditions didn’t compare badly with living at the railway station or in a small shack in a Delhi slum.
But evil is easily recognised and the solution is clear — put an end to it. Official apathy, the kind that suffocates even the best intentions, is far more damaging. In Trilokpuri, the reaction to the gangrape intensified the stigma this (unrelated) juvenile offender faced. In this poor neighbourhood, where houses are unpainted brick rooms stacked precariously on top of each other and streams of sewage zigzag along the streets, life can be rough and unforgiving. Word had already crept out that he was back.
Nearby, a group of boys loiters in one of the lanes, keeping a keen eye on passersby. One of them brandishes a long wooden stick. “He came back last night, didn’t he,” he says. “That murderer.”
Thousands of juveniles, especially in the poorer parts of the city, come into conflict with the law. Some are rehabilitated, mostly by the shock of getting entangled with the police. It’s a matter of luck rather than judgment. For most, like the boy from Trilokpuri (who cannot be named because he is still a juvenile), it’s a slippery downward slope to further criminal activity. Until the gangrape, this moribund system was mostly ignored. Then, overnight, things changed. Those demanding that the age of juvenility be brought down had forgotten that it had been increased from 16 to 18 a little over a decade ago. They also seemed to have overlooked the fact that juveniles under 16 were also committing violent crimes.
Changing the age was just fiddling with numbers. It wasn’t what was going to fix a system that was trying to address a disconcerting dilemma — rehabilitating juveniles without punishing them; being gentle on those caught while still being a deterrent to those outside.
There were other confounding issues. In the popular perception, street children are most commonly associated with juvenile crime. Their lives are brutal and abused. Crime is assumed to be the natural corollary. But according to the statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2010-11, of 33,387 juveniles arrested countrywide, 81.3 percent lived with their parents. Homeless children, perhaps because of their extreme vulnerability, stay clear of any confrontation with the law, accounting for just 5.7 percent.
Of the juveniles arrested, 31,909 were boys, and 64 percent were between 16 and 18 years of age. The bulk of the crimes were theft and causing injury. Evidence indicates that these national patterns are reflected in Delhi.
A child’s first encounter with the system in Delhi is with the police. Every police station in the city is supposed to have two juvenile welfare officers, who handle juvenile crime and who, together with social workers and the district’s top police official, form the district’s Special Juvenile Police Unit (SJPU).
The apprehended juvenile is handed over to one of three Juvenile Justice Boards, the equivalent of courts, which decide how they need to be rehabilitated. During their trials, which typically last not more than six months, children accused of graver crimes are kept in one of the four ‘observation homes’. The sprawling, eerily empty compound of the Sewa Kutir complex in North Delhi, once a home for beggars, now houses a juvenile court, an observation home and a new detox centre for children.
The observation home and centre are sequestered behind high walls and fences, but the court, which sits in a room at the corner of the complex, is open to everyone.
In practice, most of these children are released on ‘bail’ by the time their trials conclude. The few that the justice board thinks require institutionalisation are sent to the single ‘special home’ in North Delhi. This home also contains a wing, known as the ‘place of safety’, for juveniles who were erroneously sent to adult prisons, but cannot now be kept with other juveniles for fear that their brutalising (prison) experiences might rub off on the others.
It’s a regular day at the Sewa Kutir court. Outside sit gaggles of anxious kids and parents. Policemen, who are required to be in plainclothes, wait to present evidence or escort children into the courtroom. Private lawyers, who have set up shop in the courtyard, wait behind desks for the next customer. Three young boys, all about 17 years old, squat nervously in front of the room that houses the Delhi State Legal Services Authority, which provides free legal aid to children who cannot afford a private lawyer. They’re facing an ‘attempt to murder’ charge over a brawl that started with a minor motorcycle accident in their colony.