Voicing disconcert over the lack of documentation on the number of unnatural deaths of children in child care institutions, a bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta asked the Centre and state governments to document such deaths of kids who are in need of care and protection, "with far greater concern than has been shown so far".
"The unnatural death of any child in need of care and protection or in conflict with law and in a child care institution needs attention since it is these voiceless children who need to be heard," the bench said.
It also said that it is "rather unfortunate that the Central Government and the State Governments are oblivious to the possibility of death of children in custody in child care institutions."
The strong observations by the top court came in a verdict on a 2013 PIL on "inhuman" conditions prevailing in 1,382 prisons across the country.
"This is distressing. The pain and anguish of the next of kin of children who pass away in custody is not less, but more than the pain and anguish of the next of kin of any prisoner who suffers an unnatural death in custody," the court said, adding that "it seems that apart from being voiceless, such children are also dispensable".
While passing a slew of directions regarding unnatural deaths and prison reforms across India, the bench said the dignity of an individual is not a "plaything for those in authority".
It said those in authority must show greater degree of sensitivity towards persons in custody as all forms of custodial violence makes it "abhorrent" and invite disparagement from all sections of civilised society.
"Like most societies, we are not strangers to custodial violence and unnatural deaths but our vibrant democracy permits us to debate and discuss these issues with rational arguments.
"However, right sounding noises critical of custodial violence (in any form) cannot achieve any useful purpose unless persons in authority hear the voices of the victims or the silence of the dead and act on them by taking remedial steps," the top court said.
It directed the Ministry of Woman and Child Development to discuss with official concerned of the state governments and formulate procedures for tabulating the number of children who suffer unnatural death in child care institutions.
The bench observed that National Human Rights Commission has an extremely important role to play in cases of unnatural death in jails and although the NHRC has issued detailed instructions from time to time, "it does appear however that these instructions are not being taken seriously but are being followed more in the breach".
"All that we can say in this regard is that while the Central Government may have noble intentions and is perhaps taking steps to improve prison administration and to bring about reforms in prisons, the fact remains that conditions in prisons leave a lot to be desired and there are quite a few unnatural deaths in prisons," it said.
It said that suggestions and recommendations made by the Centre do look good on paper but they do not seem to have any remedial effect and the Ministry of Home Affairs must take a proactive interest in prison reforms.
It also said that no state government could "shirk" its duties and responsibilities for providing better facilities to prisoners.
"There is no reason at all to exclude their next of kin from receiving compensation only because the victim of an unnatural death is a criminal. Human rights are not dependent on the status of a person but are universal in nature," it said.
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