The Delhi gang-rape case two months ago brought the issue of juvenile justice into sharp focus. It triggered off debates in TV studios and in the print media. The debates looked at the juvenile justice law in a negative context as they revisited the age limit.
But, an important dimension of the law was ignored - its spirit of reform and rehabilitation. We examine this aspect through the eyes of juveniles in conflict with the law.
Meet Saddam. He is a little over 19 years old and runs the kitchen at the Sahyog Deaddiction Centre for children in conflict with the law. The kitchen handles meals for 50 to 60 people, sometimes even more. Boys admitted to the centre take turns to help him and learn the ropes. Sadam used to be one of them. Since age 11, he had been living a life of crime to fuel his drug habit.
The son of a grocery store owner, Saddam used to study in a government school. But when he got sucked into a world of drugs, no alarm bells went off, either among his family or his school teachers.
The former juvenile offender, said, When I started doing drugs, I was in class five. Once, I saw a boy in my class smoking ganja behind the school building. He asked me to try it. I did and I got hooked."
When asked what substances he abused, Saddam replied, "Everything. Injections, alcohol, beer, all drugs." "When drugs came into my life, crime came into my life. My family never provided me much money. I got close to older boys, started living with them, and began using drugs. I used to steal mobiles with them. And then an incident happened in 2005," he told us.
That year, the gang Saddam hung around with robbed a man and stabbed him. The man died of his injuries. Caught by the police, Saddam came to the notice of the juvenile justice system in 2005. He was sent to the government's observation home for boys in Sewa Kutir. But the downward spiral only got worse.
Saddam said, "I was caught. I came to Sewa Kutir. I was there for three months. My parents got me out on bail. After that, my criminal activities increased. In 2010, my father saw injections and ganja in my pocket. He died of a heart attack when he realised the extent of my drug use and crime. I was not bothered by his death. I was just obsessed with drugs. I was not aware of deaddiction centres. All I knew was that you commit crime, go to jail, and come out again. You get a date for a hearing and you appear before a magistrate."
Saddam was born in Seelampur in northeast Delhi, which has among the more impoverished and alienated urban communities of the capital. Many of the families here, including children, are employed in small garment factories. For decades, neighbourhoods like this one have been identified as high crime areas. Inspite of the obvious social problems, and their impact on children's lives, these areas continue to be underserved by state government institutions.
Political, social, and economic factors reinforce each other to create disadvantageous circumstances for the poor residents.
According to Saddam, the parents here are busy with work while children roam outside. No one keeps an eye on them. Drugs are peddled on the very same streets where children play. Adults get the children hooked onto drugs and ask them to steal. They say, "You give me this, I will give you drugs."
Seelampur is sandwiched between two police stations, new Usmanpura and Seelampur. The irony is that though Saddam's house is 100 yards from the Usmanpura police station, it is outside the station's jurisdiction. The police were not concerned with juveniles like him, Saddam said, or with what was happening right under their noses.
Saddam had several run-ins with the law, only to be let off after money changed hands. No case diaries were filed. He said, "When I was picked up, I used to be let off. I have got away many times."
Outside the gate of the police station, Saddam shows me one of his haunts. "See that dhaba? We would smoke ganja right there. We would be there in a group of six to seven boys."
Saddam has four brothers and four sisters. We spoke to his brothers and his mother. They said that it's the environment in their neighbourhood that plays a harmful role. "Those who work in factories are fine, but those who are not working get into the habit of taking drugs," they said.
"There is a lot of violence. Drug peddlers lure children till they become addicts. If one child takes drugs, the entire family suffers. We faced abuse and humiliation from so many people," Saddam's family added.
His mother recalled the trauma of those days, when she would search for Saddam by day and by night, wondering whether he was lying somewhere, whether someone had caught him.
It took five years before Saddam appeared before the juvenile justice board again. This time, he was directed to the Sahyog Deaddiction Centre, which had been set up under directions of the High Court. While the building and space is provided by the state government, an NGO, Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), administers it, raising its own resources. Saddam learnt a lot here from the JFT or Just For Today classes.
Saddam said, "As time passed, I started realising the difference between what is good and what is bad. I would share my experiences with my peer group and we would come up with solutions. I liked my JFT classes. Our programme taught me that the first step is to accept the fact that I was an addict. To give up my arrogance, and understand that I had to negotiate every day very carefully. Only then could I prevent a relapse into drug use. I had to decide that I will not do drugs today. I will not do drugs even if there was intense sadness or happiness today."
This was a turning point in Saddam's life. His brothers said, "We are very happy now that our brother is on the right track. He is with good people. He helps out others like him. The family should take control as soon as the child strays for the first time. Being indulgent is a mistake."
Saddam's uncle said, "The government's policy on alcohol and tobacco is to blame. Take for instance, gutka. They banned it and then lifted the ban. It used to cost Rs. 1, now it costs Rs. 4. There are no curbs on these harmful substances. There are so many alcohol shops in every nook and corner of the city. There are more alcohol shops than ration shops."
His family finds it difficult to recognise the new Saddam, who is not angry and restless, and is content to play with his nephew. They are taking it step by step as the relapse rate in drug addictions is known to be very high. Saddam has been clean for two years now and earns 5,000 rupees a month as a cook. He gives most of it to his mother to contribute to the marriage of his sisters.
Saddam says he has few desires, but sometime in the future, he would like to set up his own dhaba. "I am very happy now. I was not aware of anything before, whether there was a festival or any event. The only thing that consumed my mind was drugs. That is all I cared about," Saddam told us.
Our next stop is Nizammudin Railway station. This is where Raju arrived six years ago from Guwahati as a 12-year-old boy fleeing a dysfunctional family. For five years, he lived on the streets and off the streets as a ragpicker. He got addicted to glue and graduated to hard drugs. To pay for his drugs, he took to a life of crime, to thefts and burglary.
Raju was one of the street children we see every day, at railway platforms, traffic signals, and temples. Children who live without care and protection. Children we turn away from.
By the time he was 17, Raju was accustomed to injecting drugs, and was close to a physical breakdown. A year ago, he was brought before the juvenile justice board in a snatching case and was directed to Sahyog for a three month programme of detoxification, counselling, and vocational training.
Raju also learnt to repair motor pumps as part of a new skill-training module started at the centre in collaboration with the The Tehelka Foundation, another NGO, and the Kirloskar Brothers company. The teenagers get trained in basic skills as an electrician, and then work at a Kirloskar service station.
It is the kind of opportunity that teenagers like Raju never had before. However, the first challenge for people like him is the socialisation process. "Initially I was scared. I thought that if something went wrong with the motor pumps, I would be blamed. But my colleagues reassured me and said I should work wholeheartedly. They said they would take care if something happened. From that day onwards, I worked freely and without fear," Raju said.
"When I am on my way to the workshop, I make sure that I don't get distracted. I don't talk to anyone. If I spot any of my old cronies, I avoid them by changing my route. I know that if I hang out with them, there is a real danger of relapsing into doing drugs again. When I feel tempted, I turn my mind to my work," Raju told us.
Speaking about youth like Raju, Gulshan Chaudhary, Associate Manager, Kirloskar Brothers, said, "Their IQ level is more than that of the normal child. They are more daring compared to normal children. They were just given the wrong directions."
Piyush Gupta, the director of Bonus Sales and Services, said, "We have had Raju for about three months now and I think he is a very, very hard working boy. I am very happy with him."
Far from causing havoc and destruction, Raju and Saddam are slowly repairing their lives. However, in both cases, the common factor is the long and sustained intervention that they received. A majority of juvenile offenders need similar engagement and follow ups.
Recounting his journey, Raju said, "Because of the condition of my health, the court would extend my stay at the centre. When my health started improving, the magistrate asked me whether I would repeat the offences again. I assured her I would not. She then told me that she would send me back home. I requested her not to do so. I told her that I don't know how to read and write, or to do any work. There was a risk of getting drawn into crime again. She asked me what I would like to do. I told her that I would like to stay at the centre for at least two to three years and learn some work."
Rajesh Kumar, executive director of SPYM said, "When they see a positive side of the life, they become much better. We need to invest in them, not just monetarily, but also in terms of love, care, and protection."
Today Raju is an ordinary working man, proving those who believed that he would either end up dead or as a hardened criminal wrong. He says his only regret is that he doesn't have a bank account where he can save his salary of 5,000 rupees a month. "I use my money to watch films and eat something. I don't know how to save. I have asked for a bank account to be opened a number of times but am told I cannot have an account as I don't have identity proof," he said.
Raju is grateful for being given a second chance, and said, "If I were to meet somebody who is like the old me, I try not to use harsh words. I tell them that they are following the wrong path. If they don't pay heed, I just pray to god to give them wisdom like he gave me."