POCSO sounds alarm bells
In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court of India has directed all the high courts in the country to expedite the trial of sexual abuse cases involving children. It has asked the high courts to form panels of judges to monitor the cases involving the stringent POCSO Act. Recently, the Centre has also brought in an ordinance with a provision for the death penalty to convicts who have raped children below 12 years of age. As per the data, there is a huge pendency of 1,12,628 POCSO Act cases across India. NCRB data suggests that the pendency rate of POCSO Act cases is 89 per cent whereas conviction rate is only 29.6 per cent. The low conviction rate and high pendency of POCSO cases reflect that sexual atrocities on minor children continue unabated. In the last three years, nearly 35,000 cases were registered every year under the POCSO Act, a majority of them being rape cases. Trials are completed in close to 10,000 cases every year. There is a huge backlog of pending cases registered under the POCSO Act in the trial courts of the country.
Through the Kathua rape incident in which an eight-year-old girl of a nomadic Muslim tribe was abducted, drugged, gang-raped, and murdered in the Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir, the issue of child rape and other atrocities on minor children came to the fore. People from all walks of life expressed outrage over the incident. But, the matter was also unfortunately politicised with right-wing organisations demanding a CBI probe into the incident. There were protests over the chargesheet that named eight Hindus for the rape and murder of the eight-old girl. Her lawyer was threatened against taking up the case. It was the Supreme Court that intervened in the matter and wrote letters to the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Council and Kathua District Bar Council, restraining them from the protest and efforts to prevent the filing of the chargesheet. The Supreme Court has said that if there is any delay or bias in the case, the SC will shift the matter to other courts in a different state.
In a recent judgment, godman Asaram has been convicted of raping a minor at his ashram. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment until death by a special court. The court has also given 20 years each to two accomplices in the crime. These incidents of sexual violence against minors show that there has been no decline in the number of such horrific incidents. Even though the conviction rate is low, there are cases where a trial has been completed and the guilty have been convicted. The Supreme Court wants the high courts to keep a watch on the cases relating to rape and other crimes against Children under the POCSO Act. The number of pending cases under the POCSO Act in the country is more than one lakh. This points to the overall number of pending cases in these courts. There are more than two crore such cases in the lower courts of the country. The Supreme Court and the high courts are equally clogged with a large number of pending cases. Because of this, the ability of the courts to announce the verdict at a quicker pace is severely undermined. While the courts take years to decide on a case, the rate at which crimes against minors are increasing is alarming. The unsuspecting innocent children are falling victims to sexual crime at a much faster pace. The government has enacted laws and introduced ordinances to prevent sexual crime against children but the tardy manner in which these cases progress in the courts leave a big question mark on the justice being met out to the minor victims. It is in this context that the Supreme Court's directives to high courts to monitor and fast-track POCSO related cases in the lower courts is a praise-worthy decision. The high courts can appoint a panel of judges to monitor these cases and see to it that the courts function on a serious note and deliver a judgment more speedily. The fact that 90 per cent of POCSO-related cases are pending in lower courts is a matter of serious concern. Apart from other reasons, the low conviction rate indicates that in the long process of the courts, the victim and witnesses lose interest in their cases. Witnesses turn hostile and the victim just wants to move on leaving behind the dark shadows of the past. This trend can be reversed only with the speedy trial of these cases.