Police Abuse and Killings of Street Children in India

India has the largest population of street children in the world.2 At least eighteen million children live or work on the streets of urban India, laboring as porters at bus or railway terminals; as mechanics in informal auto-repair shops; as vendors of food, tea, or handmade articles; as street tailors; or as ragpickers, picking through garbage and selling usable materials to local buyers.3

Indian street children are routinely detained illegally, beaten and tortured and sometimes killed by police. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon: police perceptions of street children, widespread corruption and a culture of police violence, the inadequacy and non-implementation of legal safeguards, and the level of impunity that law enforcement officials enjoy. The police generally view street children as vagrants and criminals. While it is true that street children are sometimes involved in petty theft, drug-trafficking, prostitution and other criminal activities, the police tend to assume that whenever a crime is committed on the street, street children are either involved themselves or know the culprit. Their proximity to a crime is considered reason enough to detain them. This abuse violates both Indian domestic law and international human rights standards.

Street children are also easy targets. They are young, small, poor, ignorant of their rights and often have no family members who will come to their defense. It does not require much time or effort to detain and beat a child to extract a confession, and the children are unlikely to register formal complaints.

Police have financial incentives to resort to violence against children. Many children report that they were beaten on the street because the police wanted their money. The prospect of being sent to a remand home, the police station or jail, coupled with the threat of brutal treatment, creates a level of fear and intimidation that forces children or in some cases, their families, to pay the police or suffer the consequences.

Indian law contributes to the problem. Under the Indian Penal Code, anyone over the age of twelve is considered an adult, and ambiguities in the code concerning the ability of the child to be cognizant of a crime have made it possible for children as young as seven to be treated as adults under the law. There are no provisions in the code that prohibit the detention of juveniles in police stations or jails. The Juvenile Justice Act, which applies to all the states and Union Territories in India except Jammu and Kashmir, does prohibit the detention of "neglected" or "delinquent" juveniles in police lock-ups or jails, but these provisions are routinely ignored by police. Moreover, at the remand stage, the law makes no distinction between neglected and delinquent children, so that a six-year-old orphan on the street and a fifteen-year-old child who has committed murder are likely to be treated the same way under the law, an issue analyzed further below.

Finally, there is the de facto immunity of police from prosecution. The government of India has known about the extent of custodial abuse, including abuse of children, at least since 1979 when the National Police Commission issued a devastating indictment of police behavior. More than a decade and a half later,none of its recommendations have been adopted, and police can detain, torture and extort money from children without much fear of punishment.

This report documents police abuse of Indian street children and deaths of children in police custody. It is based on investigations conducted in India during February and March 1995 and December and January 1995-96. Human Rights Watch spoke with more than one hundred street children, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations, social workers, human rights activists, human rights lawyers, and other individuals who work with street children in Bangalore, Bombay, Delhi, and Madras. Of the one hundred children interviewed, sixty complained of police abuse in the form of detentions, beatings, extortion, or verbal abuse. All the children interviewed reported a fear of the police. Of the sixty street children who reported police abuse, Human Rights Watch recorded twenty-two detailed testimonies. These cases were selected because the children had better recollection of the incidents and could provide a comprehensive description of their treatment by police. The testimony of two social workers who had been abused by police for attempting to stop the police from beating children was also recorded; one of these cases involved detention and severe beating. In total, forty-one cases are presented in this report. In addition to this first-hand information, written statements taken by lawyers from children who had been victims of police abuse, documents written by police officials concerning police abuse, case files prepared by India's National Human Rights Commission, press reports, reports by local human rights organization, reports by the United Nations, studies on street children funded by the government of India and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and reports by local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provided corroborating evidence in the preparation of this report. This report also details the deaths in custody of fifteen children from 1990 to 1994 and the death of one child in a remand home in 1996.

Human Rights Watch was able to interview only boys for this report. Access to girls was limited because most groups working with street children do not work with girls, and because cultural norms make it improper for girls to speak to strangers, especially males.