We need to standardise the age of a child, create space for case-by-case interpretation and consequent sentences and have immediately actionable policy recommendations.
It took a barbaric rape case, unconvincing methods of age verification and a harsh, yet questionable sentence under public scrutiny, for the Government to maybe consider the glaring fallacies in the juvenile justice system. Finally, the government is now considering putting a new category in the Juvenile Justice Act, to address crimes committed by adolescents aged between 16 and 18. According to me, this is the only way to ensure that this population group—neither child nor adult—is dealt within a case-by-case basis, without stripping off the legal rights of that age group, handing out harsher sentences to juvenile offenders or abandoning those on genuine need of care and protection. Lets say the government makes this change, will it make a real difference? Indeed it will but alongside, the government needs to do two very important things to demonstrate its commitment to amending the child protection system and making it robust in the long run.
First, it needs to amend multiple laws suitably to have a standard definition of a ‘child’ with categories for adolescent and space for case-by-case judgments, pertaining to that particular law. Despite having signed the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child and a recently amended National Policy for Children (both defining individuals below 18 as children), our present legal system is schizophrenic with regard to who is a child. This is apparent in the diverse range of judgments—stemming not from the diversity in the cases but because of the scattered definitions in each law. (Eg. The Age of Majority Act 1875, states every Indian attains Majority at 18 years of age, unless another law ‘specifies’ otherwise; The Plantation Labour Act 1951 states that a child is one who has not completed 14 years of age and adolescence as one who has completed 14, but not 18 years of age; For protection against kidnapping, abduction and related offences, a child is one below 16 (male) and 18 (female) years; The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions Of Employment) Act 1966, defines a child as one below the age of 14 (but does not define an adolescent).) There is a need to amend each of the laws suitably and ensure that they do not contradict one another as they do, at present. There is a need to standardise, and within this standardsation, create space for case-by-case judgements, where each law is applicable.
Second, the government needs to create policies that have tangible and etched out policy recommendations for improvements in child protection and juvenile justice. For example, The National Policy for Children, 2013 passed earlier this year, is a wonderful policy that is a good amendment to the National Policy for Children 1974. This new policy gives rights to the child, commits, promotes, improves, provides, secures, prevents, ensures, addresses, enables, identifies, co-ordinates and does multiple other things. This well-intentioned policy is idealistic and verbose. But what are the actionable steps that it recommends? How does it intend to do all that intends to do? What does it actually do to child welfare and protection in Indian? Does it have clear pointed recommendations under each of the subheading within it? How is it going to be implemented? It fails to answer any of these questions.
The problem with public policies, directly addressing individuals or a vulnerable population group is that they often get away with verbosity and rhetoric and little actionable recommendations. The government can get away with being garrulous. It promises to do this and do that. There are multiple policies that state these perfect plans without giving out any real recommendations, and to the citizens, it feels as if the policy addresses their grievances. Since these policies do not address infrastructure or economic capacity building, their goals are often hard to quantify, and they effortlessly slip into jargon and words. If anything– the spate of violence against children, the pathetic state of child welfare, the fallacies in the juvenile justice system and the failures of child protection—each point out that we need to go outside the influence of words and emotions when it comes to policies for this group. We need to explicitly look at hard data demonstrating the problems and discover a tight set of immediately actionable policy recommendations. While jargonised and well-meaning policies placate the crying and bleeding hearts in the short term, they are nothing but tattered handkerchiefs. They provide no change in the long run and do nothing for the main stake holders.