ON 21 FEBRUARY, 17-year-old Ayushmaan woke up at 4 am. It was the first day of the higher secondary examinations organised by the Maharashtra state education board for twelfth-standard students like him. The portal to an undergraduate degree and better employment opportunities, board exams are a milestone in the life of students in India. Making his way past the boys sleeping all around him, Ayushmaan retrieved a textbook from a nearby shelf and came back to sit down on his mattress. He tried to ignore the pangs of anxiety in his stomach. Under the sterile glare of the tubelight, he studied from his English textbook for two hours, until daylight broke.
After bathing, combing his hair and dressing in jeans and a t-shirt, he collected his books and went down to the front gate with a friend, and they both went over the syllabus. The yellowing buildings shaded by huge, dense trees were just beginning to show signs of morning activity. At 9.30 am, Ayushmaan’s stomach began to turn again, in a combination of hunger and anxiety. “When will they come?” he asked his friend impatiently.
Finally, two well-built men bowed through the low, barred gate. Ayushmaan stood up with relief. Picking up a plastic bag that contained two pens, pencils and an eraser, he and his friend got into the vehicle to be driven to the examination centre. There was another reason for his eagerness to leave. He was stepping out of the premises for the first time in four months. This was not a dormitory or a hostel, but a juvenile detention centre called the Umerkhadi observation home—one of two such homes in south-central Mumbai. The men who arrived to pick up the boys were not relatives but local armed police officers, who had specifically been assigned this duty after a prolonged administrative back and forth.
Ayushmaan, and his younger brother, who is now in the twelfth standard, are first-generation learners. Their father is a sweeper and their mother a domestic worker. Ayushmaan had full attendance at his junior college right through the eleventh standard. Two years ago, his education, and life as he knew it, came to a halt when he was charged with the rape of a three-year-old child. According to the chargesheet filed at Worli Police Station, Ayushmaan’s neighbour found him lying naked next to her three-year-old daughter at the anganwadi—a childcare centre—where she had left her. The document states that her daughter’s undergarments had been taken off and that there was semen on her private parts.
Ayushmaan’s mother tried to convince me of her son’s innocence. “The anganwadi teacher had asked him to babysit the child,” she said. “It was raining heavily outside and water was seeping into the room. The child asked to go to the toilet. On her way out, she slipped and fell.” She insisted that Ayushmaan was only trying to dry her when the child’s mother entered the room. (Ayushmaan is not the boy’s real name, but a name that is meaningful to his parents because an astrologer recommended it.)
For Ayushmaan to be able to sit for his exams with a state board, while incarcerated in a juvenile home, was unusual. Detention centres are usually only able to provide adolescent inmates with vocational training. A flagship initiative by a non-profit organisation and the detention-centre staff was taken forward by a small group of committed volunteer teachers to make this possible. The volunteers in the programme, mostly women, have been working with a few boys in the home since April last year.
The Umerkhadi observation home, better known as the Dongri remand home, once served as the Dongri jail, where figures such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were imprisoned during British rule. The home houses two categories of children left in charge of the state—minors who are abandoned, rescued or orphaned; and children in conflict with law. The former group, including minor girls who are victims of rape and domestic violence, live in a building on the western side of the campus until they are claimed by their families, adopted or transferred to another institution. The latter, to which Ayushmaan belongs, are kept in a locked and guarded building on the other side of the campus. They are detained here for as long as it takes for the Juvenile Justice Board to assess their cases. The children’s aid society and the children’s court—part of the JJB—share space with the two homes in which the children live.
A typical day in the remand home comprises counselling sessions and vocational training in tailoring and carpentry. A headcount of the children is undertaken five times a day. Family members are allowed to meet them once a week for two hours. Guards escort them to attend court hearings in the adjacent building, where sessions of the city and suburban courts of the JJB are held. The legal intent of the home is to aid in the children’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The conditions in which they live, however, are less than ideal.
The government allots a sum of Rs 635 per child every month for all expenses including food, clothes and medicines. The nearly 70 boys wear loose half-sleeved t-shirts and shorts as uniforms, and did not appear to be very well fed. They live with little privacy, sleep in overcrowded dormitories and share bathrooms. The period of stay at the detention home is a pause in time, where any aspirations or hope the families might have had for their children are put on hold, while the principles of reformative justice take their course.
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Chatura Rao is a Mumbai-based author and journalist. She was a recipient of the Laadli National Award in 2017 and The Hindu’s Good Books award in 2018.