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On Magazine Road, near the Delhi University campus, a seedy, expansive complex with high, pale yellow walls, which served as a warehouse for arms and ammunition during the British rule, houses three of the six correctional facilities for juvenile offenders run by the Delhi government. Its most notorious inmate is the youngest defendant on trial for the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi.
“He is kept separate from other children in a facility known as ‘place of safety,’ ” said Manoj Kumar Upadhyay, a counselor at the juvenile home for boys. The accused is allowed to interact with other inmates for a limited time to discourage discussions of his case, said Mr. Upadhyay. “He does talk to other boys when he is with them,” he added.
A verdict by a Juvenile Justice Board in Delhi is expected Aug. 5. The defendant, who was 17 at the time of the crime, cannot be named under Indian law. If convicted, he could get a maximum sentence of three years in a special home.
The juvenile home in north Delhi lodges offenders who are 16 years and older–including those undergoing trials as well as those convicted of their crimes. Last week, 20 juveniles resided across the three facilities. Separate facilities in Delhi house inmates below 14 years and those 14 to 16 years old.
Ramesh Kumar Dhaneria, superintendent of the north Delhi juvenile home, works out of a shabby office in the relatively new administrative block built in a corner of the expansive facility. A few dismantled computers, a damaged carom board, a few broken weights and iron bars decorate his office. “The children broke them,” Mr. Dhaneria said of the computers.
He acknowledged that dealing with the children was not easy, but assured that there were no cases of violence in the past few months. “They are children, they tend to be demanding. They often ask for food like samosa and chow mein, which is not part of the prescribed menu,” he said.
Private security guards and juvenile home staff kept a watchful eye on the inmates at all times, he said, although the closed circuit cameras installed in the complex didn’t work. “The children broke the cameras,” Mr. Dhaneria said.
Despite the facility having a budgetary allocation of almost 4 million rupees, or $66,000, for the current financial year, Mr. Dhaneria said that he was waiting for the Delhi government department overseeing his facility to approve a request to purchase new cameras and computers.
In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape case and the alleged involvement of the juvenile suspect, there was renewed attention on the efficacy of the juvenile justice system in India because of the maximum sentence the boy could receive. A debate over lowering the age of adult criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years followed. The Supreme Court of India last month dismissed several litigations seeking a change in the age criteria.
“On what basis are we seeking a change in the law? The problem is with the implementation of the law,” said Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, a co-director of HAQ Center for Child Rights, one of the two nongovernmental organizations enlisted by the Juvenile Justice Board to counsel juvenile offenders in Delhi.
“The interpretation of the law has been inadequate and the infrastructure around it has not been in place,” she said.
In India, if children as young as 7 and those below 18 commit offenses, they are recognized as “juveniles in conflict with law.” The rules state that the police can only apprehend a juvenile for an offense if it warrants a punishment of seven years or more under the Indian penal code.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India, which maintains a record of reported crimes, lists 31, 973 crimes that were committed by juveniles in 2012, compared to 27,541 in 2002. In Delhi alone, 1,171 cases were registered against juveniles during the past year. The states of Bihar and Chhattisgarh saw almost double that, and Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra reported over four times the Delhi level.
India’s Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection Children) Act of 2000 requires the creation of juvenile homes in every Indian state. According to a recent study by the Asian Center for Human Rights, 733 such homes received assistance from the Ministry of Women and Child Development in March 2012.
About 200 children are lodged across the six juvenile homes in Delhi, five of which are for boys. Lack of trained staff and financial corruption plague these institutions, says one expert.
“Officers are overworked and untrained and often resort to shortcuts to run these places,” said Anant Kumar Asthana, a lawyer who specializes in juvenile justice. He heads a five-member judicial committee appointed by the Delhi High Court in 2009 to monitor the workings of juvenile homes in Delhi.
The government allocates a substantial part of the juvenile home budgets to security. But a common practice in some institutions is to create an internal system of surveillance, under which certain inmates get special privileges to monitor and prevent inmates from fighting, Mr. Asthana said.
“This practice saves the staff from arbitrating fights and gang wars in juvenile homes, but once a new inmate challenges the chosen ones, it leads to more fights,” he said.
Two large, spartan rooms in the north Delhi juvenile facility houses juveniles who have been convicted. One of the rooms had an air cooler, a television set and two old steel racks, which stored some personal belongings. Clothes hung on a thin rope that ran across the length of the room. A pile of bedding was stacked next to a window in the rear.
Seven inmates were lodged there at the time of a reporter’s visit on Monday, but not all were present inside. A teacher from a nongovernmental organization taught Hindi to two boys, who sat on a bare mattress.
In the adjoining room, the floor was covered with colorful rugs. The inmates had decorated one of the walls with a mural of the Hindu god Shiva and the goddess Parvati. A boy was taking guitar lessons from a teacher; an old tailor taught another boy to use a sewing machine.
“This is part of the vocational training offered at the institution,” said Karam Chand, a welfare officer at the juvenile home. “Many boys are interested in music.” He prompted the young boy, who quickly tried to play a popular song from a Bollywood film on the guitar.
“Madam, the superintendent does not listen to us. We want video games,” the boy strumming the guitar told this reporter. I was not allowed to speak to the inmates by the authorities so I could not ask him about his earlier life and his interest in video games.
In the courtyard, a water dispenser was placed next to stinking toilets, and a broken washing machine lay by a trash can and a few brooms. “The boys’ clothes are washed in that washing machine,” Mr. Upadhyay said. A barren volleyball court, a makeshift temple and a shrine were all that could be seen in the open space outside the two rooms.
Mr. Asthana said these institutions do not provide the psychosocial care, as prescribed in the juvenile justice act. “There is contempt toward children in conflict with law among those who run these places,” he said.
Within a month of the detention of a juvenile, individual care plans have to be prepared and the progress of a juvenile has to be monitored regularly by the authorities, something that was missing in homes across Delhi, he said.
A former inmate who was convicted in a case of sodomy spent six months at the special home in the north Delhi facility. “The officials there hardly spoke to me,” he said. “I spent most of my time watching television or cleaning the place.”
There were no vocational classes held in the institution during his term, he said. He was released in 2010 and now works as a sweeper in an east Delhi neighborhood.
“We washed our own clothes, cleaned the toilets and did the dishes,” said the 24-year-old man, who is married with a 1-year-old son.
Since the nature of crimes committed vary, for some offenders only counseling is recommended, said Shahbaz Khan Sherwani, a program coordinator at the HAQ Center for Child Rights, who counsels about 15 juveniles in conflict with law every week. He is also the counselor for the Dec.16 gang rape suspect.
One of the children referred to him was a young girl of 14 who had made hoax calls to the police. “I called the police saying that there was a bomb blast at India Gate,” she said. She explained that she did so to scare her younger sister.
Now 18, she said that counseling over a period of almost three years helped her transform from an “introvert to an extrovert.”
But not everyone has such positive experiences dealing with the system. A young boy of 15 who allegedly attempted to elope with an 18-year-old girl last year recounted the horrors of his encounter with the police. He said he was locked up inside a police station overnight and beaten, which is against the law that deals with juvenile offenders. The girl’s family leveled false allegations against him after she refused to admit in the police station that she accompanied him of her own will, he said.
The boy’s father, a laborer, was also roughed up by the police and was asked to pay 10,000 rupees before his son could be released, the boy said. Days later, the boy was sent to an observation home in central Delhi where he stayed for a short period after which he was freed on bail.
“I was threatened by the police for a long time even after I was released,” he said.
The boy, now 16, hasn’t returned to the government school he was attending before his detention. The girl he loved got married. He is now enrolled in grade 10 through an alternative school and is just focusing on his studies, he said.
Mr. Sherwani of the HAQ Center for Child Rights said the police often initially treat juvenile suspects as adult criminals. “The police often manipulate the age of younger boys and send them to adult jails, where such offenders become more criminalized,” he said.
A petition filed by children’s rights advocates in 2011 contended that 114 adolescents were transferred from Tihar Jail in Delhi to observation homes after their initial wrongful detention. Mr. Asthana, the lawyer, said the actual number was higher since there were many cases where detainees could not put up a legal fight to prove they were under 18 when they committed an offense.
After a High Court order, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a government agency, conducts monthly visits to Tihar, and on every visit it is found that juveniles are being detained there, he said.
Boys who spend time in an adult jail “learn the tricks of survival there and use them with the inmates of an observation home,” he said, increasing the violence in juvenile homes. Surgical blades commonly used in adult jails have been recovered from detainees in observation homes, he said.
The philosophy behind the law that protects juveniles is that they have to be given a second chance, said Ms. Thukral of the HAQ Center for Child Rights.
“Once the child serves a term, a juvenile justice board has to ensure whether the child is fit to be put back into the society as more responsible citizen,” she said. But a review process almost never takes place, she said.