Seventeen-year-old Vijay Kumar came to Delhi from Bihar over ten years ago with his elder brother to escape poverty and an alcoholic father. Together the boys made a small slum in Kriti Nagar, West Delhi, their home.

“In the slum we were exposed to petty crime, drugs and poverty. I understand how easy it is for a child to take to crime when living amid it,” said Vijay (who is now associated with a federation of street children, Badhte Kadam, facilitated by non-government organisation Chetna in Delhi), on Thursday speaking at a “Public Discourse on Juvenile Justice”.

The meeting was organised by the pro-child coalition (including child and human right activist, lawyers, doctors and students) advocating against growing demands to lower the age of juveniles from 18 years to 16 under the Juvenile Justice Act following the Delhi gang-rape case where one of the accused is a juvenile.

“Even in the Delhi gang-rape case where one of the accused is a juvenile, this boy (accused) had run away from home, had no access to education and was engaged as a child labour. He was exposed and left vulnerable to those engaged in crimes. With this background the fact that he himself took to crime is no surprise. The fact remains that the security net offered to children by the Government in terms of laws, policies and facilities failed him,” said Vijay.

Stating that lowering of age for juveniles will only push them into the criminal justice system faster, he added: “We, the street and working children, feel that while there are enough policies and programmes there is no proper implementation. What we want is not for us to be pushed into crime but to be saved.”

Seconding the view, child right activists and practitioners present at the meeting stressed the need for deepening of the collective understanding on how to ensure justice for all, particularly children.

Rational debate needed

Child rights activist Raaj Mangal Prasad said: “Currently there is a debate raging across the country on lowering of the age for juveniles. This is fuelled by the outrage evoked by the recent gruesome gang rape in Delhi in which one of the accused is a minor. There are many misrepresentations about juvenile justice in general and about the specific provisions of the JJ Act (such as the baseless comment: the minor accused in this crime will be roaming free in three months when he turns 18) that are being presented as fact, and are leading to more confusion and anger in the public.”

“We are concerned that this very serious issue that will affect thousands of children will be decided at a time when reasoned debate is almost impossible given the extent of (understandable and warranted) public anger and disgust with both the specific crime, as well as the system at large. We believe that children in this country deserve a reasoned and rational debate on this issue since it is they who will be most affected,” he added.

Speaking at the interactive session, Nina Nayak of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) said: “There are adequate checks and balances in the system aimed specifically to help children. However, there is a need to ensure that the implementation is done in the right manner across the country.”

Noting that children more than adults need a chance at “reformation”, psychiatrists Dr. Achal Bhagat said: “Till a person does not reach 18 year of age, he is not physically, mentally or emotionally grown enough to take on the responsibilities of an adult. Also children more than adults have a much better chance of reformation given a chance.”

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