by Karen Laurie
DELHI, JAN 30, 2015: Father Koshy Thomas – true to the principles of Don Bosco – has championed the cause of the 'Young at risk' for over 25 years. His work has won him national awards and several other notable accolades thereafter. Now, over two decades on, Father Thomas has been appointed – by the Government of India – as part of a 13-member committee set up to draft the rules under which the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 will function.
The new Juvenile Justice Act was passed by the Parliament on December 31, 2015 and came into force on January 15, 2016. The Act allows children aged 16 to 18 in conflict with the law, to be tried as adults in case of heinous offences. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (DWCD) of the Government of India informed Father Thomas of his appointment by email on January 28.
The committee will be headed by Asha Menon, Principal Judge of the Family Court in Dwarka in New Delhi. The members include Gurkirat Kirpal Singh – the Director of the Department of Social Security, Prem Uday Kharka from DWDC, Surinder Singh Mann, the Chairperson of the Congress Working Committee, Dr Jitendra Singh Nagpal, a mental health expert, Bhuwan Ribhu, an Advocate in the Supreme Court and several other notable members.
The committee will prepare Model Rules as per Section 110 (1) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015. It will have 45 days, from the date of the constitution of the Committee, to submit the rules to the Centre.
"Don Bosco institutions are well known for working with the 'Young at risk'," Father Thomas, who is the Secretary of the Don Bosco National forum for the Young at Risk, said. "Our national level activities are well known to the ministry. The survey on street children, that our research centre - in Mumbai – undertook, is well known."
"I've been in this sector for a long time and was the Chairman of the Child Welfare Committee for two terms and then in the State of Andhra Pradesh, I was in the selection committee, so probably they looked at the background of the people."
The role of drafting the rules is in reality a State Governments responsibility, but before State's decide, it is the Central government that drafts Model rules. Based on this draft, State's draft their own rules, with slight changes and amendments. But States largely follow the Model rules drafted by the Centre.
"A rough draft has already been drawn up by the ministry, as that gives us the skeleton to work on. I have shared this with other like-minded NGO's, so that they can do some homework and I expect that they will pass on what they have generated, which will be helpful when I present whatever needs to be contributed. I have the minds of so many people behind me," Father Thomas said.
"Every article of the act needs a rule to implement. Based on that, there are areas we will need to discuss and bring in more clarity. Opinions from the ground have tremendous value, rather than only bureaucrats drafting it. The ground reality is more close to those who are working on the ground. I'm trying to be the voice for the NGOs."
The need to reform the Juvenile Justice Act of 2010 came to the national limelight after the 2012 Delhi gang rape, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern was beaten, gang raped and tortured in a private bus in which she was travelling. One of her attackers was a juvenile, who was convicted of rape and murder and given a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment. His release from prison late last year raised a national outrage.
"The Act in 2015 was hugely criticized. We also opposed lowering the age (of juvenile imprisonment) after the Nirbhaya case. Even in Parliament, although they passed it because the Government has a majority, there was opposition. In the Rajya Sabha, it was opposed, as the opposition parties were given documentary evidence and proof as to why this should not be done and they stood by it. This year, it finally got the majority, because the Congress supported them," Father Thomas said.
"The biggest challenge will be to make the States responsible for reform rather than punishment. Statistics too show that punishment has never been a deterrent."
Now, that the 2015 version of the Act has the President's consent, the committee will meet to chalk out the rules. "When the committee sits together they will have opinions and, I guess, there will be a majority to decide, like the normal passing of any deliberation," Father Thomas said.
Deep thought and deliberation is the need of the hour; and Father Thomas is clear that he and the other members will - like Don Bosco - keep the best interests of the child in mind when drafting the Model rules.
"Don Bosco's principles helped me. I think it is the best way to introduce change. The principles of Don Bosco, towards the youngsters, will certainly reflect in the drafting of the rules, from my side, as that would be top-most in my mind, in Juvenile Justice we look at the best interests of the child, and that's exactly what Don Bosco wanted," he said.