The Union government should reduce the age for trying people as adults under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act from 18 to 16 to check increasing crimes against children, a top panel has recommended, according to people familiar with the matter.
The committee noted that cases registered under POCSO rose from 32,608 in 2017 to 47,325 in 2019 – an increase of nearly 45% in two years — and made important recommendations to check cyber crime, improve the condition of sex workers and increase police accountability in cases of crimes against women. It also noted that the stringent law was often misused to criminalise consensual relationships, the people quoted above added.
Currently, someone between 16 and 18 can be tried as an adult, under POCSO or the Indian Penal Code, only if they are charged with heinous crimes such as murder or rape. The decision usually lies with a juvenile justice board. If tried as juveniles, they are sent to a reform home, not a jail, and a process of rehabilitation is also drawn up.
The people quoted above said the members of the parliamentary panel on home affairs felt that juveniles convicted of minor sexual offences may grow up to commit more heinous crimes if left unchecked. Therefore, it asked the Union home ministry and women and child development ministry to see if the age limit could be reduced to 16.
The recommendations come at a time when there has been an alarming rise in cases of teenage boys raping or assaulting very young girls, some aged 3 or 4. Several experts say this trend necessitates the move to reduce the threshold for trying suspects as adults. However, some other experts argue the reducing the age would be contrary to the jurisprudence of juvenile justice.
The panel’s recommendations will now be tabled in Parliament as early as next week.
The panel also noted that there was potential of misuse of the law, citing information from states about cases where an 18-year-old boy has been arrested under POCSO for marrying a juvenile girl with her consent. The panel also commended Uttar Pradesh for its good conviction rate under the law.
POCSO, enacted in 2012, was brought in to check mounting crimes against children and lists the maximum punishment as life imprisonment and death. It defines a child as anyone under 18. The Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 – which governs proceedings against minors in India – was amended in 2015 to try some juveniles between 16 and 18 as adults if they were accused of heinous crimes that attracted a minimum punishment of seven years. The change came in the backdrop of the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, where one of the accused was 17 and tried as a minor.
“For heinous offence, children over 16 can be tried as adult, the provision already exists….This recommendation does not take into account numerous studies and the Tamil Nadu government’s submission that Pocso is being utilised to criminalise adolescents in consensual relationships,” said child rights expert Swagata Raha.
Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights, warned of the possibility of criminalising consensual sex. “We are seeing a spurt in such incidents across the government. Are we going to institutionalise this now? We need to be in a preventive mode, not a penal one.”
The people quoted above said the panel noted that cybercrime against women and children rose from 4,330 in 2017 to 8,684 in 2019 and transcended geographical boundaries. Therefore the panel recommended that law enforcement agencies across the country coordinate to check such crimes, the people added, on condition of anonymity.
The panel’s discussion also focused on criminals using Virtual Private Network (VPN) – which allow a user to mask their location – to access the dark web, bypass cybersecurity walls and remain anonymous. It recommended that the Union government permanently identify and block such VPNs.
The committee received several submissions about women complainants finding it difficult to lodge police complaints and suggested strict action against police officers and law enforcement personnel who refused to file such cases, or registered false cases. The panel recognised that the government did not support the sanctity of sex work but highlighted the need to safeguard them from violence, protect their rights and provide them legal aid.