Delhi molestation: India not ready for sex offenders registry, says child rights lawyer

Independent advocate Anant Asthana specialises in child rights and has over the years represented juveniles in a large number of cases. He works closely with the Juvenile Justice Board and is closely associated with the reformation and mainstreaming of juveniles for several years. He travels around the country to orient and trains the police, NGOs, lawyers and judicial officers on the Juvenile Justice Act and other laws concerning children. He is also closely associated with the drafting of laws and policies dealing with children.

Speaking exclusively to Firstpost, Asthana talks about why the country needs special police trained to handle crimes against cases, whether or not India is ready for a sex offenders' registry and how the police figures on the Delhi tailor accused of sexually molesting kids might be exaggerated.

Excerpts from the interview:

The case of a Delhi tailor having allegedly sexually abused 500 kids has horrified the conscience of the nation. Are there any lessons to learn from this case?

A. He may be a sexual offender but where is this information coming from? It is a regular police practice to exaggerate the number of cases in the case of an accused. The fact is that neither the courts nor the police kept any watch on him although he had been arrested and jailed earlier. This is a learning for us. Take the case of the Drug and Narcotic Psychotropic Act (DNPA) where a person is punished if he is addicted to taking drugs. But the second part of the law emphasises that we must try and create a situation wherein he receives proper treatment so that he kicks the drug-taking habit. This aspect has not received due emphasis. If he is a regular sex offender, he is suffering from a mental illness. The police claim that he (the tailor) had been caught in Rudrapur in Uttarakhand and even jailed for six months. The question is why was he not kept under surveillance?

Anant Kumar Asthana

Anant Kumar Asthana

Indeed, that seems to have been a major omission on the part of our police force?

My experience in all these years that I have fought cases in our law courts on behalf of juvenile delinquents is that we remained extremely poor in creating any kind of thorough surveillance systems. There is no follow up from within the system to find out where such an individual is operating and to keep a tag on him.

But at the same time, I do not support the proposal to create a sex offenders registry (SOR) that will supposedly keep track of sexual offenders. We do not need an SOR. My involvement with boys who commit juvenile crimes (or even older men) is that those who commit crimes are known by the system.

Those who are proponents of the SOR believe that the names of sex offenders and paedophiles, etc, should be put on such a portal. Then, I as a citizen can check such a portal and find out who is a sex offender and take proper precaution. The aim of this exercise is that those who have shown such tendencies should be monitored.

But there are many grey areas in this proposal. We have cases where an individual can be a one-time offender and have no other cases registered against him. The authorities need to come up with an appropriate plan to keep him under vigil without putting his name on the SOR.

Having a name on the SOR will mean that if an individual applies for a job, or accommodation or wants to start a bank account, it will be mandatory for him to get police verification. But then there are those who believe this will act as a deterrent and will help bring down cases of sexual abuse, especially against kids.

I have a contrary point of view. I believe the existing system of record keeping within the police force must be strengthened. Our record keeping which must be strongly linked to our crime preventive strategies.

Let me cite you one example. In 2012-13, a number of school kids in Delhi were found to have been sexually abused, and the driver of the school van was caught abusing these children. Based on this incident, a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court by the HAQ Centre for Child Rights. In response to this PIL, the Delhi Commission for the protection of Child Right prepared fresh guidelines for the prevention of sexual abuse of children which was then notified by the Delhi government.

Once again the emphasis was shifted from the firm implementation of the law to the creation of fresh guidelines which have not been heard of since. A record of criminal offences already exists in the police but this system does not have adequate linkages with the court and other implementation bodies.

We keep coming up with new schemes but the schemes that already exist are not being adequately implemented. Implementation is a governance issue and it is this which needs to be addressed.

Everyone is over- burdened. Our failure to act effectively has proved a major hindrance in our efficient prevention of criminal action including crimes against children. Preventive action is the key to the curtailment of crime. But, police officers don't earn credits from preventive programmes. So, if I have spent the last five years in preventing crime, I have nothing tangible to show to my bosses.

The government machinery and especially police force insist that they are already over-burdened. How does that affect prevention of crimes against children?

Everyone is over- burdened. Our failure to act effectively has proved a major hindrance in our efficient prevention of criminal action including crimes against children. Preventive action is the key to the curtailment of crime. But, police officers don't earn credits from preventive programmes. So, if I have spent the last five years in preventing crime, I have nothing tangible to show to my bosses. Prevention is difficult to measure. If on the contrary, I end up arresting five sex offenders, I can take a lot of credit for my action.

My own experience shows that crimes, whether sexual or otherwise, are being regularly reported in the courts but little has been done to improve governance on this issue.

Based on my individual experience I have been demanding that the government appoint police officers in police stations who will deal exclusively with children issues. These police officers will handle offences committed against children, by children and also deal extensively with members of the community.

Such an exclusive police officer will make focused and committed interventions in child-related issues and will obviously develop an expertise on children issues.

Today, we have police officers who are experts on cybercrime, experts on antiterrorism investigation, experts on drug investigation and so on. But we do not have police officers who can focus exclusively on crimes committed against children. We need to come up with a whole range of preventive schemes which will be implemented effectively. This is the need of the hour.

The situation in our other states is almost the same as it is in the capital region. I do not believe there is much difference. We have to stop this present practice of reacting to an individual incident, but rather come up with a wide range of preventive strategies that have been thought out in advance.

But the crimes are becoming more and more brutal. Sex crimes are also on the rise. What do you think of that?

When the 2012 Delhi rape case happened, the government set up a multi-crore fund in which it would create a mid-level female cadre comprising of at least three sub-inspector rank women police officials to investigate women-related crimes. But this has not been implemented till date.

We need to accept that there is a sharp increase in crimes against children. But these need to be investigated properly. Some years ago, a 15-year-old boy was brought before the court. The police accused him of having stolen 24 gas cylinders and on one occasion the cops were claiming he had gone on foot and stolen six gas cylinders from a hotel. The judge asked the cops as to how could he possibly have stolen six gas cylinders at one go and that too on foot. He told the judge that he had been caught stealing one cylinder some years ago, after which every time a theft of a cylinder occurred, the cops would put the blame on him.

But in the case of the tailor, he has been accused of committing over 2,500 sexual assaults and molesting 500 children. What does that say about the case?

The only person saying this is the police. Did they do any kind of investigation to arrive at these conclusions? There are many cases where poor people do not receive legal aid. They end up getting convicted by a lower court but if they manage to receive a hearing in the higher judiciary, the earlier judgement gets repealed.

The issue of SOR is a highly controversial proposition. In countries where it is being implemented such as Sweden and Norway, there are several mandatory provisions on how the community has to keep a watch over these individuals so that they do not end up being branded in any way. But if we go in for sweeping laws, this will have its own repercussions.

What will happen if an individual has not committed a sex crime but gets his name on the SOR list?

If his name gets on the list the man is doomed.

Updated Date: Jan 19, 2017 12:25 PM

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