he furore over the release of the juvenile in the December 16 gang rape case has generated much debate on the Juvenile Justice Act.
However, the aspect of reform is a much-neglected part of the juvenile law, say experts. Maharashtra ranks among the highest in underage crime. But the condition of its reform homes and recent incidents of abuse in Mumbai indicate that reform remains a far cry for juveniles in conflict with law.
“The rehabilitation aspect is very poor. No proper schooling or vocational training is given to juveniles, who ideally should be schooled like other children,” said TISS professor Asha Bajpai, who was on a High Court-appointed State monitoring committee on juvenile justice.
According to the latest data of the National Crime Records Bureau, Maharashtra topped in cases of murder and attempt to murder by juveniles with 121 and 137 being registered respectively in 2014. It had the second highest record of rapes by minors with 208 cases being registered under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code.
The high numbers only reflect the number of children in need of an effective reform system. A major part of the reform and rehabilitation process hinges on the superintendent and staff of the juvenile homes, who sorely lack adequate training and have been found to be perpetrators of abuse on juveniles under their care.
“Many times caretakers tell the older children to beat the younger ones. They don’t get their salaries on time. You need a team of counsellors, educators, therapists, social workers, and mental health experts. The system has failed the juveniles. Even the location of these homes is not according to the need, but based on political considerations,” Ms Bajpai said.
A few months ago, the Bombay High Court took suo motu notice of an incident on May 28, when a 17-year-old boy died after he was brutally beaten by other boys at the Matunga home.
This incident was followed by two reports of investigations into the conditions at observation homes in Dongri and Matunga, which cited sexual abuse and malpractices by their staff.
“During inquiry, I came to know that the caretakers are abusing inmates. A few children said the caretakers help provide narcotic substances to older boys by taking money from them. The older boys are abusing every single child openly. This clearly shows there is lack of control on part of the superintendent and the probationary officer,” stated one of the two reports by the Principal Magistrate of the Juvenile Justice Board, dated June 20, which was submitted to the High Court.
It faulted the superintendent of the Matunga home for his lack of ‘experience, expertise, sensitivity, and responsibility’. Other problems such as lack of nutritious food, security threat, and sexual abuse were also highlighted.
“There is nothing educational or vocational activity at these homes. It is where criminal groups are formed. There is a lot of bullying by the older children, but no one talks about it,” said Anuradha Sahasrabuddhe of Childline, Pune.
Delay in cases leads to juveniles languishing in observation homes without bail and turning to crime.
“They say no one will accept them and a life of crime lies ahead of them. There is a sense of despair and abandonment when parents come in for case hearings. As per procedure, a probationary officer can take the case forward, but many don’t know the provision. Charge sheets are also not filed on time,” Ms Sahasrabuddhe said.