- After one of the six males under trial for the rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old woman was deemed an adolescent and therefore entitled to leniency, juvenile rights activists have found themselves pitted against irate members of the public demanding death sentences for all the perpetrators.
The brutal rape committed on Dec. 16 aboard a bus plying in the Indian capital sparked widespread outrage and calls for summary trial and maximum punishments, including for the adolescent, a member of the attackers who was yet to reach 18 years of age and cannot be tried as an adult under existing Indian law.
The incident prompted calls to reduce the age when an offender may be considered a juvenile delinquent to 16. A petition filed in the Delhi High Court by political leader Subramanian Swamy demanded that the adolescent (who may not be named under the law) be tried as an adult. The demand was turned down.
“What is being missed here is that the accused was one of the more than 80,000 child labourers in the capital and never had a chance to get an education or a decent life since he was ten years old,” says Bhuwan Ribu, a lawyer known for his work with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) or the ‘Save Childhood Movement’.
According to Ribu, the adolescent was also a victim of trafficking, that the BBA has been fighting alongside its campaigns over child labour. It has been demanding that the government implement existing laws that guarantee the right to education for all Indian children.
“The laws exist only on paper and these include laws passed in 2006 seeking to prevent children from being employed as domestic help and in roadside restaurants,” said Ribu.
Surveys conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) do show a declining trend. While the NSSO estimated that there were nine million child workers in India in 2005, the numbers had declined to about five million by 2010.
Over the last three years the ministry, under its National Child Labour Project (NCLP), says it has rescued and rehabilitated 354,877 child labourers and launched 25,006 prosecutions that resulted in convictions for 3,394 employers.
“Most offenders get away with token fines because they bribe officials to apply laws that carry punishments that are not as tough as those prescribed for violating child labour laws,” said Ribu.
Swami Agnivesh, an activist who leads the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM), or Bonded Labour Liberation Front, says there are practical difficulties in securing convictions for violating child labour laws. “The judicial process is tardy and our focus is on rehabilitating the victims and getting them back to school.”
Agnivesh who has served as chairperson of the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery told IPS that the government appeared unable to implement laws that deal with child labour although various studies have shown that it is a factor in perpetuating poverty, illiteracy and unemployment in India.
Agnivesh said that but for international pressure factory owners would have continued to employ children in industries that involve hazardous substances such as glass, matches, fireworks, tobacco, cement and bricks.
“We believe that in spite of the laws more than 12 million children below the age of 14 are still working as domestic help or in stone quarries, mines or in the hospitality business,” Agnivesh said.
“The NSSO figures are gross underestimations and there are no government mechanisms for carrying out inspections on industries that employ children and prosecute influential employers,” he said.
One difficulty in prosecuting erring employers, said Agnivesh, is the difficulty in proving the identities and age of children who are trafficked to cities like Delhi from remote villages.
In the case of the adolescent facing rape charges investigators relied on records provided by the principal of the school where he studied in the district of Badaun, 220 km east of the capital, to establish his age. But that did not stop calls for having him tried as an adult.
In an open letter published in the Hindustan Times newspaper on Jan. 15, Minna Kabir, a child rights worker and wife of Altamas Kabir, India’s chief justice, said “every society is responsible for the well being and care of its children up to the age of 18 years, especially if they are marginalised, helpless and powerless to do anything for themselves.”
According to Kabir, most children come into crime “because we have failed to provide them with even a basic support system.” She listed poverty, faulty peer groups, dysfunctional families, an empty stomach and exploitative adults among the reasons.
Child rights activists are now looking to amendments due to be made in existing child labour laws through the child and adolescent labour bill that is expected to be passed in Parliament during the budget session which opens on Feb. 22.
The bill seeks to prohibit employing anybody below 18 years in hazardous occupations and all employment of children below the age of 14. Children between 14-18 years are to be defined as “adolescents” in the amended law.
With child labour a major obstacle in getting children into education, the amended laws are expected to help implementation of free and compulsory education up to the age of 14, under a 2009 law.
More than 100,000 Indian citizens have signed an e-petition by the BBA and the Global March Against Child Labour supporting the new child labour law as part of a campaign to get India to ratify International Labour Organisation conventions. (End)