New Delhi: The walls of the large hall, the windows bricked up, were lined with steel bunk beds; some with deflated mattresses, many without. The floor was covered with either newspaper, torn rugs, or bedsheets, left behind by those who used them to rest their heads. The pale yellow paint on the wall had largely peeled off, revealing bare cement and brick.
Some parts of the exposed wall were covered with hand-drawn posters. One of them read: “Honesty is the best policy.”
This was the residential hall at a juvenile de-addiction centre, Sewa Kutir, one of three in India’s capital housing children using or addicted to narcotic drugs, alcohol, and psychotropic substances. Run by Society for Promotion of Youth & Masses (SPYM) under the support and supervision of the women and child development department of the Delhi government, Sewa Kutir houses 54 children between 12 and 16.
Instead of sentencing them to “serve time” in a juvenile observation home, these children were sent to Sewa Kutir with the hope of reformation and rehabilitation. While the aim is not to punish, the centre has punishment not sanctioned by law wired into its design and practices, Article 14 found after interviewing staff and children and observing the centre’s practices during a two-day visit in August 2021.
There is little comprehensive data about substance abuse among Delhi’s children, but limited studies and the existence of institutions like Sewa Kutir indicate there is a problem, which, some experts said, is growing.
The Substance Abuse Problem In Delhi
A 2019 study—by a standard nine students—of adolescents aged 13 to 18 in a depressed Delhi neighbourhood in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences found substance abuse among 70% of those interviewed: 54% smoked and 51% drank. “There was a significant increase in substance abuse with an increase in age,” said the paper.
That is borne out at a national level. Whether opioids, inhalants, injected drugs or other substances, Delhi figures in the states reporting most substance abuse in India, according to our analysis of data in the union ministry of social justice and empowerment’s 2019 report, Magnitude of Substance Abuse in India.
The ministry report said 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, more than four times as many as the next city on the list, Mumbai.
“A variety of complications were reported by children as a result of their substance use,” noted the first nationwide assessment of substance abuse among children in 2013, the latest such data available, commissioned by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). These complications included “sexual behaviour” at home or on streets under the effects of substances or in exchange for substances or money.
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 in 2018 before Parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, by the ministry of social justice and empowerment. The ministry’s latest report estimates that about 2.8% and 1.8% of the country's population is addicted to opiods and inhalants/sedatives respectively. 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.
“Due to the budgetary restrictions and the inadequate access to probation officers, meaningful rehabilitation of a child takes a backseat. There’s only much we can do, we can’t control their destiny beyond the confines of our centre”, Rajesh Kumar, PhD, the head of the de-addiction centre told Article 14.
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 Article 14. “Sometimes I can hear them, they’re somewhere outside, but I wonder what they look like. I wonder which bird is making the sound.”
We 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.
Denial Of Fundamental Right To Education
Article 21A of the Constitution obliges the State to provide free and compulsory education for children between six and 14. However, in an institution run by the State itself, education is neglected in the reform process at Sewa Kutir, where skill training is given precedence.
Skilling classes are focused only on carpentry, masonry and basic repair. Despite the fact that the lack of formal institutional education is a major contributory factor to juvenile crime (here and here), children at Sewa Kutir are denied quality education. More than 50% of juveniles taken into custody in 2019 were either illiterate or educated only up to primary level according to national crime data.
“We’re only taught how to write our names… that too so that we can sign the court documents”, said a 15-year old who has “served time” at the centre twice before.
The administration believes that providing an education to these children is not part of their “core mandate”, so what is offered is limited to writing names in Hindi and basic numbers. Officers acknowledged that the loss of schooling was “unfortunate” but reasonable collateral damage to the cause of curing the drug addiction of these children.
“How can we provide education?” asked an administrative officer. “We do our best with whatever little we have. Our responsibility is to cure their addiction, and we’re answerable to the court just for that.”
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 Article 14 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 Article 14 that the rehabilitation programme suffered from a lack of funds and human resources for aftercare and post-release supervision.
Probation officers are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring post-release aftercare and supervision of children. However, officers said they were overburdened with other social-welfare work, such as prisons, probation hearings for adult offenders and district courts.
Interviews Article 14 conducted with probation officers between August and December 2020 revealed how probation officers felt overworked and considered understaffing as the biggest hurdle to their task.
“Probation officers only get activated when they are pulled up by the JJB (Juvenile Justice Board)... there are delays in social investigation reports,” said Asthana. “Probation officers do not have the expertise to conduct this exercise in a meaningful manner.”
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.
“The prevailing ecosystem and the practises underlying these institutions have defeated the very purposes of constituting them in the first place—care, protection and rehabilitation.” Asthana said.
(Karan Tripathi is a lawyer and researcher on criminology and criminal justice.)