By Abhishek Jha:
The Juvenile Justice Bill, 2014, which is earning the ire of child rights groups, was today passed in the Lok Sabha with minimum support for amendments suggested by the opposition. It was moved on Wednesday evening for consideration by Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Welfare. The bill, which makes some unanimously agreed upon changes for better implementation of the 2000 act, also proposes trial of children aged between 16 and 18 as adults for heinous crimes (the offences for which the minimum punishment under the Indian Penal Code or any other law for the time being in force is imprisonment for seven years or more) in case the Juvenile Justice Board finds them physically and mentally capable of such a crime. Shashi Tharoor made an impassioned speech against the lowering of age for trial on both days. “I want to stress, Mr. Chairman, in conclusion that children below the age of 18 must be saved from prison, must be protected from the regular criminal framework. We cannot sacrifice a child, appease popular political sentiments,” he said. The arguments presented in the parliament against this change were as follows:
(i) Misreading of NCRB data: In order to establish a need for the proposed amendment ‘The Statement of Objects and Reasons to the Bill’ says that the “data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau establishes that crimes by children in the age group of 16-18 years have increased, especially in certain categories of heinous offences.” Citing the report of the parliamentary standing committee, several legislators were quick to point that the NCRB data was being misread. The crimes committed by children in the particular age group are only 1.2% of the total no. of crimes. The report of the committee says, that “the juvenile crime from the period 1990 to 2012 ranged between 0.5 to 1.2 percent of total crimes committed in India. The average of juvenile crime to total crime during these 22 years has been only 0.8 per cent. The percentage of juvenile crime to total crime increased in 2001 when the age limit for male juveniles was raised to 18 years but it was still 0.9 percent and had remained stabilized thereafter.”
(ii) Violation of Article 20(1): Clause 7 of the bill provides that an adult of age 21 years or above may be tried as an adult for a serious or heinous offence committed between the age of 16 and 18 years. After several members of parliament pointed out that this was in violation of article 20(1) that does not allow a person to be “convicted of any offence except for violation of the law in force at the time of the commission of the act charged as an offence, nor be subjected to a penalty greater than that which might have been inflicted under the law in force at the time of the commission of the offence” clause 7 has been withdrawn.
(iii) Retribution over Reformation: Clause 3(i) of the bill itself asks for a child below the age of 18 years of age to be innocent of any criminal intent. The JJB then judging the child capable of thinking like an adult- implying thereby trial for criminal intent- is in contradiction of the bill itself. Supriya Sule of the NCP while applauding the overall bill said that the bill had glossed over this important issue in a passionate plea for retributive measures. “When you are a mother, you feel that every rapist should be hung. Even I feel that as a mother. But I am not standing here as a mother. I am a policy maker here,” she said. Most representatives, including those from the BJP, seemed to agree that reformation was the correct path. The case made for deterrents for these children were done only using the NCRB data that seems to fall under the report of the standing committee.
(iv) Care and Protection of Children: Protecting children, which is a prime concern of the bill and article 15(3) of the constitution, would require that adequate measures are taken to reform children in the form of, say, counselling as suggested by the bill. However, the standing committee’s report says that the “Observation Homes or Special Homes were mini-incarceration homes affording no opportunities for children in conflict with law.” The disinterestedness in first addressing this issue, some said, was reflected in the poor attendance in the house.
The provision regarding lowering the age of trial has been rejected summarily in the standing committee’s report and was criticised by the opposition. While a suggested amendment was being put to vote today, Shashi Tharoor asked the government to think for a moment before they voted on the bill, and was soon drowned in the voices that rejected the proposed amendment. Despite being warned against getting swayed by a single case, the government has scored another political point. The hope in this number game now rests with the Rajya Sabha, where the government does not have a majority.