Children, crime and the state
The crisis of children in crime points to a mismanaged state
 Afsan Chowdhury

" I have eaten better than I have in my life. I eat in restaurants everyday. I give money to my mother regularly. We are not hassled by our landlord. If there is trouble, I can go to my ustad and he will help me because he knows big people and he knows the mastans. He also knows the police. This is a good life."

It's quite possible that the future criminals of Dhaka will mostly be children from the residential zones of Dhaka, whether from the slums or from the upper class neighbourhoods of Dhaka. The reasons range from alienation of children from their immediate families to intense pressure of poverty." This was the comment of Gowher wahra, who has been working on the issue of child criminals on behalf of an NGO involved in the issue of juvenile justice.

The situations that force children into crime are surprisingly similar. In a way they are also frightening because given certain failures of social safety nets, the chances of children dropping into the crime basket remains dreadfully high.

Conceptually, the issue is one of juvenile justice but it also includes what is also defined as children in conflict with law. However, approaches do differ and it's noted that while some see it in terms of a series of isolated or connected phenomenon, others look at it as a process where each segment is a reflection of the other.

In case of Dhaka in particular and Bangladesh in general there are certain situations in the chain of events that create vulnerabilities that may push children into crime. These begin very early and often at home. Many of these observations have been echoed by the various reports carried out on the issue as it exists in Bangladesh.

In a recent survey carried out by the SCF-UK, an international NGO working on the issue of children in various jails of Bangladesh, it has been noted that almost all children interned were from the impoverished class. In other words, whoever may be the criminal, it's only the poor who go to jail. This doesn't simply relate to class realities of Bangladesh but also the realities of the justice system, which determines the law and order situation. It seems that a child is first poor and then a child even within the ambit of law. " Law and order problems certainly depend on socio economic situations." With declining social order, this simple statement becomes a major problem.

Prisoners of new crimes. Law and order situations are dependent on social crime situations as well. For example, rising poverty in urban settings have also created opportunities for new crimes including an aggressive drug trade. Drug trade has in turn spawned an entirely new culture of criminal persona that is specific to the crime in which children play a major role. This involvement is again dependent on the nature of the retail drug business. It's noted that hard drugs like heroin and its derivatives, has less involvement of children while phensedyl has a huge child population that is involved in this deadly trade.

" I have joined the trade because it gives me money. This is the best job in town. " Mukhtar, is twelve years old and comes from the "BNP" slum, a major retail centre of this traffic. He is paid Taka 50 a day plus two meals at a restaurant. He manages to sell between 500 to 1000 taka worth of bottle. His supplier also has a network in the slum and in fact it's so open that the notion of secrecy that comes with crime is entirely missing in his mind. He could very well be hawking chocolates or cookies for all one knows. The sense of crime isn't there and that probably helps them draw people to the trade including children to the trade.

" When my father left home we were in great difficulties. There was no help from any relatives and my worked as a domestic in different homes. But life is very hard. I used to study in a school but soon stopped going because I needed to earn money quickly and classes weren't much fun. I began to work as a carpenter's assistant but the man never paid me. So I left him. If you hang around in the market you always "pick up this and that" and I became a loader of goods and then a shop assistant. But he caught me smoking his cigarettes and threw me out." Mukhtar is frank about his past.

Transition: With a deep economic need but having lost two accessing sources in quick succession, Mukhtar is then an ideal person to walk over and join organized crime. His own peers told him that selling phensydyl was much more paying than working in shops and more respectable. It was also safe because nobody involved in this trade is ever arrested.

" I have seen that in slums the police do come but they are part of the slum. Many live in the slums during the day and some come to talk at night. They also know many people in the slum. Everyone pays something to the police so they aren't strangers. But they do arrest people once in a while and that can be a problem. "

"Who gets arrested?"

"Only fools get arrested. "

This statement is significant because there is no value loading of the statement and is a simple testimony that being arrested is stupid and not being involved. Worse, being in crime or out of it, when juxtaposed against economic insecurity becomes a meaningless statement. Crime by itself is unable to produce any meaning for the criminals in general and the child criminal in particular.

Mukhtar soon joined the trade and the simplicity of the drug trade itself makes this a great net for catching them young. He was introduced on the first day to the customers who would arrive by various vehicles cars to rickshaws- and pick up bottles. There would be a number of kids in the trade and the road served as the counter. There is no bargaining but a price that is set by the dealer each day, which depends on the state of supply.

The supply system depends on factors like consumers demand as well as temporary choking of the supply which is caused by sudden bursts of policing. This usually happens when there is a media hype or a major crime that creates interest in the law and order situation or the various players in the drug trade fail to agree on the wholesale price.

For Mukhtar, these matters don't exist and all he has to look after is the number of bottles he sells and staying out of the way of the gangs. These gangs have become increasingly visible in the last few years and the police even do not contest their power. Mukhtar's boss also doesn't interfere but he himself is part of a gang and has to keep close contact with the police to ensure protection. But gangs are becoming the biggest fact of life.

No road back? The great complexity is that Mukhtar's economic life is actually better because he earns 3000 with a month of joining the trade and if he is smart he will make three times that in six months. He will soon graduate from being a street peddler and have a string of retail boys under him. A few of these will also graduate into bigger deals and some will become kingpins but the examples are clear to them all. The straight life can't offer an escape route from poverty and denial but strangely enough crime can provide that. To Mukhtar, this is no illusion.

" I have eaten better than I have in my life. I eat in restaurants everyday. I give money to my mother regularly. We are not hassled by our landlord. If there is trouble, I can go to my ustad and he will help me because he knows big people and he knows the mastans. He also knows the police. This is a good life."

But such self-congratulatory words can't hide the brutal facts of life that many Mukhtars are exposed to.

"He will almost certainly be exposed t brutal violence. He will be beaten up if he has not already been so. Most of them are addicts themselves and they will consume not just phensy but many other drugs. They are prime venereal disease victims as they frequent prostitutes regularly and their life expectancy is rather low. And much of this will happen by the time he kisses twenty-five years. He hasn't made a choice of life. It has been chosen for him by circumstances. " This was a comment from Naushad Khan who has worked with children from long and now runs a drop in centre for vagrant children aided by a cluster of Scandinavian churches.

For children in crime, the entry is as inevitable as exit is impossible. Since they are not in school, few learn socially mainstreamed skills. The wages they may get are so low and the income they become used to is so high that they simply refuse to consider any employment or trade. They also get used to high living habits including drugs themselves and without any good clean-up programmes, they will continue to be addicts and therefore need the money which only crime can provide.

But a major deterrent is also their involvement in the criminal world and as they make enemies, they can rarely survive once they leave the world. The death of many petty ex-criminals is a testimony to that. Most in fact never even consider leaving and as they have had no bouts with their conscience, they find the criminal life the normal life.

"When the only space they can occupy and survive is the criminal one, they survive by instinct. Children are part of the drug world because they have seen no other world. As the stake in the drug world is high and the players can be just about anybody, I think the small fries including the children are as much victims as are the consumers. But what else can you offer as an alternative? " Rukhsan Sultana works with these children in extremely difficult situations.

The implications for children in crime are two fold. One impacting on children and the other on the law and order system. The failure to manage the crime scene means that a huge army of urban criminals primarily from the poor sections of society is being created. We have as yet no way of understanding this phenomenon let alone manage it. This becomes a violation of the rights of children to which Bangladesh is also a party.

This means that most of the government supported programmes in the children sector, which are basically meant to address the underprivileged young are negatively affected. While agencies may have the capacity to deal with rational, humane and rights based treatment of children within the juvenile justice frame, this isn't the case with children in conflict with law. By failing to rein in the crime level especially the drug scene, the children are in particular being vulnerablized. And in this happening, the state is failing to, live upto its commitments. And this produces a proportionately failing state.

But an equally dangerous element is the cloistering of organized crime with the governing constructs of the state. The involvement of children with crime and at such a large scale means that the state itself is defining its priorities including a quasi-criminal state as the governing construct. The availability of children then becomes the responsibility of the state in a way of speaking. The state is forced to become the encourager of crime. The children become the weathercocks of the state's direction and nature including which way the law and order situation will flow. Thus the child in crime becomes the face in which the state becomes visible.

Getting children off crime is a way of getting the ship of the state sailing in the right direction.

Chowdhury is Senior Asst. Editor of Daily star


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 13, 2002


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