Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Unscripted Punishment: How Government Juvenile Homes Penalise Children they Promise to Protect

In August 2021, I visited Sewa Kutir – one of the two state-run juvenile de-addiction centres in New Delhi – as part of my research on Delhi’s juvenile justice system. My research was motivated by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights’ (NCPCR) report which highlighted a steep rise in cases of substance abuse by children in Delhi. Based on the interviews conducted with staff, children, lawyers, and observation of the de-addiction centre’s practices, I argue in this piece that the present treatment of children in state-run de-addiction centres is antithetical to the core objectives of the juvenile justice law. Confined day and night to a dark hall, their education limited to learning how to sign their names for court documents, I observed that 54 adolescent drug addicts are housed in an underfunded, understaffed State-run de-addiction and reform home in India’s capital and face punishment instead of rehabilitation.


Karan Tripathi


Time to read

4 Minutes

The Substance Abuse Problem in Delhi

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s 2019 report, Magnitude of Substance Abuse in India noted that children and adolescents were a ‘population group of concern’ among those in which substance use had been documented.

In abuse of inhalants among juveniles, Delhi ranked three among 37 states and union territories, with the national capital ranking four by number of children (38,000) who needed help. Addressing juvenile addictions is particularly relevant to Delhi because it has more street children, who tend to be most vulnerable to such abuse, than any other city: more than 70,000, and more than four times as many as the next city on the list, Mumbai.

91% Of Delhi’s Street Children Addicted

As many as 91% of children living on the streets of Delhi are addicted to substances, according to data tabled by the government in 2018 before the Parliament. Children as young as 10 years of age have been identified as abusing substances. The latest report released by the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that in 2019, 33 children across the country died of drug overdose. 10 of these children were below 14: 56 children who died by suicide that year had a history of drug or alcohol abuse.

‘Nearly half experienced physical and psychological problems related to substance use and a large proportion reported legal problems due to substance use,’ said the NCPCR report. Laws to address these problems are centred on reform and rehabilitation, which Sewa Kutir struggles with.

Laws And Reality

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, is meant to cater to the basic needs of children in conflict with the law through expert care, protection, development, treatment, social reintegration.

Under section 18 of the Act, a Juvenile Justice Board can send such a child to a de-addiction centre or other juvenile homes with reformative services, including education, skill development, counselling, behaviour modification therapy, and psychiatric support.

Despite the law’s requirements, the promise of reformation had been forsaken at Sewa Kutir; with the lives of the children here determined by unscripted, uncodified punishment.

Night And Day Merge into One

The hall described right at the start of this story is where the children spend most of their time. Due to Covid-19 lockdowns, which halted the majority of outdoor activities over large swathes of 2020 and 2021, children said they spent around 20 hours every day in the hall.

The most punishing aspect of the hall was its darkness, the lack of any natural light. No sunlight and fresh air entered the hall, depriving the children of both light and a source of vitamin D. During interviews, many children complained about the lack of sunlight and proper ventilation. They said sometimes they could not distinguish whether it was night or day; they also lost a sense of time and the will to “count their days”.

“I really miss the birds, we had a lot of them near my home,” a 13-year old boy told me. “Sometimes I can hear them, they’re somewhere outside, but I wonder what they look like. I wonder which bird is making the sound.”

I asked Sewa Kutir’s officials why the windows were blocked. An official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, attributed it to “security purposes”, to prevent escape.

The windows are at least 8 ft above the ground, and there appeared to be alternatives to blocking them, such as installing iron bars, which could confine the children and ensure sunlight, and the sound of birds. The lack of sunlight and proper ventilation appeared to adversely affect how the children perceived Sewa Kutir. While some children appeared to have normalised the denial of light and ventilation as their ‘fate’, many regarded it as ‘punishment’ for their past actions, or of those who came before them.

The Broken Promise Of Rehabilitation 

Anant Asthana, a lawyer and member of the National Human Rights Commission’s Core Group on Children, said that institutions for children, such as the de-addiction centre, barely contributed to the process of rehabilitation. Asthana told me that while many child rights activists were working for years to “humanise” custodial institutions for children in Delhi, prospects for meaningful rehabilitation feels like a “distant dream”.

“We have not moved an inch further in establishing effective de-addiction intervention for children,” said Asthana. “It is ironic how we’re trying to protect children from the very institutions that were made for their protection. Children are scared of institutions made for their care and protection.”

The defining purpose of the juvenile justice law is to protect children from the perils of the conventional criminal-justice system. The law aims to reform and rehabilitate instead of penalising and holding children responsible for crimes. There are no personalised rehabilitation programmes for Sewa Kutir’s children, subjecting those from varying backgrounds and problems to a uniform system of treatment and assessment. Kumar, head of the de-addiction centre in Sewa Kutir, told me that the rehabilitation programme suffered from a lack of funds and human resources for aftercare and post-release supervision. The officers at the de-addiction centre also said the lack of funding “ties their hand”.

“We just don’t get enough (money)... carrying out robust post-release supervision work with this kind of budgetary allocation is impossible,” said a senior probation officer at Sewa Kutir. “Therefore, we just focus on keeping these children safe during the duration of their stay and await court orders.”

The Revolving Door of Juvenile Homes

Children who land up at juvenile homes do so after failing various institutions of care and protection: family, friends, and school. But, as we found, under the State’s custody, they continue to be treated like a ‘lost cause’. In the absence of meaningful reformation, Sewa Kutir and other homes are plagued, said experts, by what they term a ‘revolving-door’ phenomenon. The majority of children released from the centre again slip into a cycle of crime and find themselves back to the centre. Some children have been “in-and-out”, said an official, more than five times in two years. Child-rights lawyers Asthana and Kumar said that the present state of juvenile homes in Delhi ended up punishing not just the present of children but their future.



Follow Karan Tripathi on Twitter @TripathiGee