In September this year, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) published its annual ‘Crime in India’ report providing statistics on crimes committed in India in 2020. In the last three years, according to its data, 418,385 crimes against children were recorded. Of these, child sexual abuse offences under the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) alone accounted for 134,383 or roughly one-third of recorded incidents. By this calculation, if every third crime registered against a child is under POCSO, it is expected that NCRB collects and presents accurate and detailed data related to POCSO offences. Instead, the gaps and discrepancies in NCRB data related to POCSO offences coupled with its faulty methodology raise questions on its utility in policy making and implementation.
Problematising the clubbing of offences in the NCRB report
The maximum class of offences registered against children, as per NCRB data, are those related to kidnapping and abduction punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. For these offences, NCRB provides data across ten heads, including missing children deemed as kidnapped, kidnapping for ransom, kidnapping and abduction to compel minor girls for marriage etc. All these are different offences that are governed by separate provisions of law and punished in different ways. Such granular data is useful for policy makers to understand trends in offences in order to devise counter strategies and allocate resources.
But when it comes to POCSO, which prescribes only a select few offences, varied offences are clubbed together for the purpose of reporting, making the data unintelligible and devoid of purpose. For instance, penetrative sexual assault (Section 4) is clubbed with its aggravated version (Section 6), and similarly, sexual assault (Section 8) is clubbed with aggravated sexual assault (Section 10). The difference between penetrative sexual assault and its ‘aggravated’ version is not simply of a degree of penetration or harm caused, but the legislature, in its wisdom, categorised certain circmstances or assaults committed by certain people to be of an aggravated nature.
For instance, if a police officer or member of the armed forces committed penetrative sexual assault on a child in course of his duty or otherwise, it will be considered an aggravated assault. If a child is gangraped, or if the child is below 12 years of age or inflicted with HIV or any other life threatening disease as a result of the assault, then it will be considered an offence of aggravated nature. These are also punished differently, with aggravated offences receiving longer and more stringent imprisonment. Not only are these offences distinct conceptually, but clubbing these offences for reporting purposes deprives policy makers, researchers and the legal fraternity of useful information to understand trends and take steps to rectify the system.
Another instance which deprives citizens of insights about two important protections under POCSO is the clubbing of Sections 17 to 22 which represent a motley of offences. For instance, Section 21 punishes non reporting of an offence under POCSO and it can even be invoked against a child’s family for trying to suppress incidents of sexual assault by family members or against police for refusing to record an offence under POCSO. Section 22 makes it punishable to falsely implicate a person under any POCSO offence. Both these sections, again, are conceptually different and serve unique purposes – discouraging suppression of offences and discouraging false cases, respectively. Clubbing them together defeats the purpose of providing these as two different offences.
The impact of clubbing POCSO offences – making data irrelevant
A 2018 study conducted by the Centre for Child and the Law at NLSIU Bangalore looked at judgments of Special Courts under POCSO in five states. It was found that in Maharashtra, police did not invoke aggravated charges in 51 per cent of cases where facts revealed aggravated circumstances. For Andhra Pradesh, this was seen in 35 per cent of cases where aggravated charges were warranted. Similar trends were observed for Karnataka and Assam. The study also noted that as a caution, police may sometimes invoke both simple and aggravated charges if facts are not clear. However, because NCRB clubs the reporting of simple and aggravated sections, it’s impossible to decipher whether the police are clubbing offences while lodging complaints or whether aggravated charges are not being invoked where they should be.
This also becomes problematic when another dataset from NCRB is considered, that of the offender’s relationship to the child under POCSO. According to this dataset, in 96 per cent of cases under Sections 4 and 6 combined, the offender is known to the child and of these, in 51 per cent of cases, the offender is a family member, friend, employer or other known person. This assumes significance, because assault by a person who is related to the child through blood, adoption, marriage or shares a household or is part of management or staff of an institution where the child studies or resides etc. is an aggravated offence under POCSO. This means that the majority of cases reported under Sections 4 and 6 would warrant invoking aggravated charges and because NCRB clubs offences, it is not possible to determine if this is happening.
In another instance, NCRB records only 244 cases under POCSO in Rajasthan in 2020, of which a considerable majority – 180 – were under the head of Sections 17 to 22. Due to such clubbing, it is impossible to determine whether these cases pertain to non reporting of offences or false complaints. Either could explain the low number of POCSO cases from a large populous state like Rajasthan, but both are problems of different nature. Suppression of cases will create a false sense of security and complacency in police and authorities whereas false complaints will undermine the spirit of POCSO. Both will also require different policy responses.
Basic discrepancies in data
There are also internal discrepancies in data which remain unexplained. NCRB clarifies in its methodology that data is entered at the police station level where it is first validated, then consolidated at state level (by State Criminal Records Bureau) and validated again, and finally checked by NCRB for discrepancy or inconsistency. Despite this, if numbers mismatch across years, the buck stops with NCRB.
For instance, here’s the data from the NCRB report for POCSO cases pending trial with Special Courts during the last three years:
- According to the NCRB’s 2018 report, there were 1,08,129 cases pending trial at the end of 2018. As per its 2019 report, there were 1,07,191 cases awaiting trial at the beginning of 2019. This gap of 938 cases remains unexplained.
- As per its 2019 report, 1,33,068 cases were pending trial, at the end of 2019. While in its 2020 report, 1,35,184 cases awaited trial at the beginning of 2020. The sudden increase of 2116 cases also warrants an explanation.
It is difficult to accept that NCRB is unable to notice this inexplicable discrepancy across years and has done nothing to rectify it.
Despite its shortcomings, NCRB data is referred to by policy makers and informs policy decisions. It is imperative that it continues to improve and become more robust. In case of POCSO, NCRB must avoid clubbing offences or change its format to encourage police not to club offences and to provide granular data on all offences. This will enable research and analysis of trends and help identify operationalisation difficulties that must be addressed. To avoid issues about the data’s veracity and efficacy, the discrepancies must be noted and responded to as soon as possible. In the fight against the growing menace of child sex abuse, the availability of correct and timely data could be immensely useful.