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Maneka push to lower adult age to 16

New Delhi, July 24: The women and child development ministry is set to press ahead with its proposal to try as adults heinous-crime suspects aged above 16, setting aside concerns of child rights activists who want the threshold to be retained at 18.

Sources said minister Maneka Gandhi today circulated a cabinet note among various ministries asking for their final suggestions on the draft bill that seeks to repeal and re-enact the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000.

Maneka would have to wait at least 15 days for the suggestions to come in before she can place the note before the cabinet, but the sources said her ministry had already got an in-principle nod from the law and home ministries.

The cabinet note says that if children between 16 and 18 years are accused of crimes under IPC sections 302 (murder), 326A (acid attack), 376 (rape and sexual assault), 376A (rape resulting in death or vegetative state) and 376D (intercourse by management or staff of an institution), the Juvenile Justice Board will have the power to transfer such cases to a regular court to be tried under the penal code.

At present, a minor arrested even for the rarest of rare crimes can only be given a maximum sentence of three years under the JJ Act. The ministry has retained this provision.

But those whose cases are transferred to regular courts will be punished like adults, although no juvenile found guilty of a heinous crime in a regular court can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment, according to the draft provisions.

The Juvenile Justice Board has been given a month’s time to conduct enquiries based on three parameters stated by the proposed bill: whether the crime was premeditated, mitigating circumstances and the child’s ability to understand the consequences of such an offence.

Earlier this month, Maneka had been quoted as saying: “According to the police, 50 per cent of all sexual crimes are committed by 16-year-olds who know the JJ Act so they can do it. If for pre-meditated murders, for rape, we bring them into the purview of the adult world, it will scare them.”

It wasn’t clear if the minister meant that half of all sexual crimes committed by minors are committed by 16-18-year-olds.

The ministry, which had faced stiff resistance from child rights groups over retaining the strict provisions for 16-18-year-olds, appears to have been emboldened by public opinion.

Sources in the ministry said an overwhelming number had supported the move after the draft was put up on the ministry’s website for feedback from the public.

“Most of the feedback that we have received from people from different sections of society has been in favour of the changes. Only some NGOs had issues. We saw no reason to dilute the provisions. There are enough checks and balances in the proposed bill to ensure that every case of a juvenile accused of a heinous crime in this age group is treated individually and proper enquiries are conducted before the cases are transferred (to regular courts),” a ministry official said.

Rights activists, who insist that statistics on juvenile crime are not so alarming as to warrant a change in law, said they would continue to lobby MPs and hope to stall the bill by getting it referred to a parliamentary committee.

Sources said there were reservations from sections within both the Congress and the ruling BJP but the provisions concerning the 16-18 age group were unlikely to face stiff resistance from the Opposition party as the proposed changes had been piloted by the UPA II government.

However, if rights activists manage to get through to some MPs, the government, the sources said, is unlikely to try and push a social sector bill through. In that case, they said, it would be referred to a House standing committee.