The government has to acknowledge that even children have fundamental and human rights and they cannot be compelled to live in uncomfortable conditions merely because they have "no voice in the affairs" of state, the Supreme Court today said.
The apex court said that rights of children need to be "enforced equally strongly" and if the Executive ignores the mandate of Parliament with "continuing callousness", it would only be detrimental to the children of the country.
The top court's observations came while passing a slew of directions for effective implementation of the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.
"It is said that children are the future of the country and if they are not looked after, it is the future of the country that is at stake," a bench comprising justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said in its 62-page judgement.
"No one has any doubt that it is time for the State to strongly and proactively acknowledge that even children in our country have fundamental rights and human rights and they need to be enforced equally strongly," it said.
It directed the Ministry of Women and Child Development and all state governments to ensure that all positions in the national and state commissions for protection of child rights are filled up well in time and adequate staff is provided to these statutory bodies so that they can function effectively.
The bench said that the national and state commissions for protection of child rights have a very significant and proactive role to play in improving the lives of children.
"The state governments must ensure that all positions in the JJBs (Juvenile Justice Boards) and CWCs (Chile Welfare Committees) are filled up expeditiously and in accordance with the model rules or the rules framed by the state government. Any delay in filling up the positions might adversely impact on children and this should be avoided," it said.
The top court also requested the chief justices of all high courts to register proceedings on their own for effective implementation of the Act so that "roadblocks", if any, were meaningfully addressed after hearing authorities concerned.
"Finally, we request and urge the chief justice of each high court to seriously consider establishing child friendly courts and vulnerable witness courts in each district," the bench said.
It said that inquiries under the JJ Act and trials under other statutes like the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, trials in sexual offences cases were required to be conducted with a "high degree of sensitivity, care and empathy for the victim".
The bench said there was a need to have some "compassion" towards juveniles in conflict with law since they were entitled to the presumption of innocence and establishing child-friendly courts and vulnerable witness courts would help in reducing their pain and suffering.
"Another advantage of such child-friendly courts and vulnerable witness courts is that they can be used for trials in which adult women are victims of sexual offences since they too are often traumatised by the not-so-friendly setting and environment in our courts," it said.
The apex court said that state-level child protection societies and the district-level child protection units could take assistance of NGOs to ensure implementation of the Act.
It said the JJBs and CWCs must appreciate that they were required to have sittings on a regular basis to deal with cases involving juveniles.
It also asked the Centre to make effective use of information and communication technology for issues connected with the JJ Act such as having a database of missing and trafficked children.
It said that police authorities have an important role in this issue and there was a need to set up meaningful special juvenile police units and appoint child welfare police officers in accordance with the JJ Act at the earliest.
"The National Police Academy and state police academies must consider including child rights as a part of their curriculum on a regular basis and not as an isolated or sporadic event," the court said.
It said that less money earmarked by states under the JJ fund was a "bit of an embarrassment" and stressed upon to need to sensitize and give training to authorities like JJBs and CWCs.
The bench said copy of its verdict be sent to registrar generals of all the high courts so that it could be placed before the chief justices for initiating suo motu proceedings. It has listed the matter for March 13.
The court also noted in its verdict that despite "nudging by the judiciary, judicial activism and criticism of it" over the last decade or so, states and union territories have not fully complied with the provisions of Act.
The apex court's judgement came on a PIL seeking implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act and its rules. The petition has raised the issue of alleged apathy by the governments in implementing the welfare measure.