By Aishwarya Kumar,
Chennai: “Vanakam”, says the boy, dressed in a blue shirt, as he gives the unknown face a fleeting look, and a smile lasting a few seconds. The large, prison like iron bars close in behind him, as he makes his way into a large hall.
The bright sun and green trees painted on the walls of the Juvenile Home in Kelly’s, Chennai holds no value for the young boy. His life inside the home, as a Juvenile in Conflict with Law (JCL), holds no resemblance to the painting which adorns the walls of his “home”.
“We’ve 39 children in all right now, including two girls,” said Suryakala, the Superintendent at the Juvenile home in Kellys.
The Juvenile Justice Board of Tamil Nadu not only covers Chennai, but also looks at cases from Kancheepuram, Thiruvallur and Vellore. Out of the thirty nine children at the Kellys observation home, fifteen belong to Kancheepuram, eleven from Thiruvallur and a single child from Vellore.
The Juvenile Justice Act ( JJ Act) caters to the criminal proceedings of minors, but the observation homes have the authority to keep a child in conflict with law, for an extra three years after he/she has attained 18 years of age. These added three years can be attributed to many factors- inability on the part of the parents to take care of the child, reluctance of the child to go back to his/her family, or for academic purposes.
“But as of now, we do not have anyone who’s above 18. We’ve two children under 14. Most of them are in the age bracket of 16-17 years,” added Suryakala.
Girls have separate quarters than the boys, and the boys are divided according to their age group. Accused of crimes like murder, rape, theft, the children are kept under the constant surveillance of CCTV cameras, a development which happened in recent times.
“Some of them are rowdy. They pick up fights with others, beat each other up. But there are some who are calm and composed,” explained the superintendent. They are however not reprimanded in any way, she added.
Social workers, who come in twice a week, are loved by the children, she explained. The JCLs interact with the social workers at different levels. Games, studies, arts and crafts are all ways to engage the children and give them a better chance at life.
However, in a previous interaction, Renny, a social worker who worked with the children, had voiced his concerns over the security of the children in the home.
“I know there are no cases of sexual abuse here, but I know that they are beaten up if they misbehave,” he had said.
At the level of non-formal schooling, the juveniles are taught various subjects. Ranging from book binding to carpentry, the home makes sure that they are thoroughly occupied. One can also see the children cleaning up after lunch, doing away with dirty dishes and mopping the floor. In this regard, performing the daily chores at the Juvenile home, however, can be contested.
“We do everything as is prescribed in the JJ Act. Nothing goes beyond what the law says,” explained P. Kalliammal, the Deputy Director, Social Welfare Department.
Prodded further on the lack of relevant data available to the public regarding the JCLs, she explained the absence of the Director made it impossible for them to go through paperwork and furnish the data. Contradictory statements by the lower authorities on the whereabouts of the Director, N. Mathivanan(IAS) only cemented the amount of red tapeism that existed within the system. For some the Director was in Assam, and for the others he was on election duty in Uttar Pradesh.
“We cannot give you any data till the Director comes back, which would be a month from now,” P. Kalliammal reasoned.
However, what was earlier crippled by crumbling infrastructure has now seen a positive light with the renovation of the make shift playing area for the juveniles. What was once a barren piece of land, spoiled by dog excreta, the playing area for the juveniles has been well renovated with a cemented ground for them to play.
Running along the playing area are the extra rooms being constructed at the entrance of the compound. The future inhabitants of the new building are yet to be ascertained.
“It is accommodation for the staff which works at the Department,” explained Suryakala. The Deputy Director, however, elucidated that it was meant for the boys at the juvenile home. The contradicting statements by the authorities clearly established the lack of internal communication.
Another chronic subject remains the entry into the area housing the juvenile homes. The hullaballoo around not being able to enter the juvenile home compound. without permission seems absurd, with trespassing easily possible. The gates opposite the Social Welfare Department( Defense) office in Kelly’s , open to the juvenile home .
A recent survey by the Asian Centre For Human Rights, has labelled the juvenile homes in India as “India’s hell holes“because of the abuses against JCLs.
Reforming the juveniles’ homes has to be the primary objective. They have to be holistic places for the JCLs to correct themselves and become adult, responsible citizens.
As the superintendent, Suryakala, said, “Children are all good. Only their vision is wrong.”
The writer is a student at Asian School of Journalism, Chennai.