New Delhi: Amid outrage over the spurt in rapes involving minors, the government brought in changes to existing laws through an executive order that included the death penalty and laid down a timeline for speedy investigations and fast-track trials. Two months for the probe and another two months for the trial to be completed, according to the changes brought in.
The laws may have been made stringent but child rights activists have questioned whether it will have the desired impact, given that government data shows 90 per cent cases under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) law that had a deadline of one year are pending. And that just adds to the trauma of those awaiting justice.
Five years ago, a 12-year-old visually challenged girl returning home from school was sexually assaulted by an auto driver in Delhi. The accused was arrested but the court verdict is yet to come. The girl's mother, who earns Rs 500 a day from her small roadside shop to look after her three children, says frequent adjournments and a lingering trial has been a nightmare.
"For the last five years, it has been almost a daily struggle. I got my daughter to attend a workshop for the visually challenged. But frequent visits to the court meant that her studies suffered. Once, in the middle of her exams, she was called to court to record her statement but that did not happen," the survivor's mother told NDTV.
Activists blame the delay majorly on the huge backlog of cases in courts.
"In several cases, families have to keep revisiting the court room but they only get adjournments. In one case, the testimony of a boy took two years to be recorded. Now the ordinance says four months... we wonder how this will happen," said Uzma Perveen, a counsellor with HAQ Centre for Child Rights, a non-profit.
Nearly three years ago, a rickshaw puller's six-year-old son was sexually assaulted by one of his neighbours in Delhi. The accused was arrested and behind bars but the case is dragging on. Even the testimonies of the main witnesses are yet to be recorded in court.
"Sometimes, the judge doesn't show up, there are days when the lawyers are unavailable. How long can a poor man like me pursue the case? I have a family of eight to look after based on my daily earnings," said the survivor's father.
According to an affidavit filed by the centre in Supreme Court, 1,12,168 cases lodged under the POCSO Act are pending in trial courts. Uttar Pradesh tops the list with nearly 31,000 cases.
"The country is hugely under-invested in the rule of law. When you expand the ambit of the law, you need to look at the court infrastructure, which does not happen," said Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nandy.
There is not just huge pendency, the conviction rate is abysmally low --- 29.6 per cent in 2016, down from 36.3 per cent the year before.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered the state police chiefs to form special task forces to probe cases under the POCSO Act besides asking high courts to monitor the cases. Judges hearing such cases will give no adjournments and ensure a fast-track trial, the Top Court said.
Given that over 20 per cent posts in the subordinate judiciary still lie vacant and an equal percentage in the police force, speedy trial and fast-track justice will take a lot of groundwork.