India is a multiparty, federal, parliamentary democracy with a bicameral legislature. The president, elected by an electoral college composed of the state assemblies and parliament, is the head of state, and the prime minister is the head of government. Under the constitution, the country’s 28 states and eight union territories have a high degree of autonomy and have primary responsibility for law and order. Electors chose President Ram Nath Kovind in 2017 to serve a five-year term, and Narendra Modi became prime minister for the second time following the victory of the National Democratic Alliance coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 general election. Observers considered the parliamentary elections, which included more than 600 million voters, to be free and fair, although there were reports of isolated instances of violence.
The states and union territories have primary responsibility for maintaining law and order, with policy oversight from the central government. Police are under state jurisdiction. The Ministry of Home Affairs controls most paramilitary forces, the internal intelligence bureaus and national law enforcement agencies, and provides training for senior officials from state police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by some police and prison officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners or detainees in certain states; restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, use of criminal libel laws to prosecute social media speech, censorship, and site blocking; overly restrictive rules on nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption at all levels in the government; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; tolerance of violations of religious freedom; crimes involving violence and discrimination targeting members of minority groups including women based on religious affiliation or social status ; and forced and compulsory child labor, as well as bonded labor.
Despite government efforts to address abuses, a lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Investigations and prosecutions of individual cases took place, but lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.
Separatist insurgents and terrorists in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, and Maoist-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians, and recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The government continued taking steps to restore normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir by gradually lifting some security and communications restrictions. The government released most political activists from detention. In January the government partially restored internet access; however, high-speed 4G mobile internet remained restricted in most parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The government began a process to redraw electoral constituencies but did not announce a timeline for local assembly elections. Local district development council elections took place in December in which a coalition of Kashmiri opposition parties won the majority of seats.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials at all levels of government. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Corruption was present at multiple levels of government. On March 18, the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office informed parliament’s lower house that 12,458 corruption complaints were received between March 2019 and February, of which 12,066 complaints were address or resolved. Additionally, the minister noted the Central Vigilance Commission, which addresses government corruption, reviewed 2,752 cases during 2019 and carried more than 953 of those cases into 2020.
NGOs reported the payment of bribes to expedite services, such as police protection, school admission, water supply, and government assistance. Civil society organizations drew public attention to corruption throughout the year, including through demonstrations and websites that featured stories of corruption.
Media reports, NGOs, and activists reported links among politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, militant groups, and security forces in infrastructure projects, narcotics trafficking, and timber smuggling in the northeastern states.
In July 2019 multiple complaints of criminal corruption were lodged against Uttar Pradesh member of parliament Azam Khan for illegally obtaining land for the Mohammad Ali Jauhar University, which he founded in 2006. In January, Uttar Pradesh’s district administration began to return the land to local farmers. According to the district magistrate, the process to return land had been started and would continue until all of the farmers’ claims were settled.
Financial Disclosure: The law mandates asset declarations for all officers in the Indian Administrative Services. Both the Election Commission and the Supreme Court upheld mandatory disclosure of criminal and financial records for candidates for elected office.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Most domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating, and publishing their findings on human rights cases. In some circumstances groups faced restrictions (see section 2.b, Freedom of Association). There were reportedly more than three million NGOs in the country, but definitive numbers were not available. The government generally met with domestic NGOs, responded to their inquiries, and took action in response to their reports or recommendations.
The NHRC worked cooperatively with numerous NGOs, and several NHRC committees had NGO representation. Some human rights monitors in Jammu and Kashmir were able to document human rights violations, but periodically security forces, police, and other law enforcement authorities reportedly restrained or harassed them. Representatives of certain international human rights NGOs sometimes faced difficulties obtaining visas and reported that occasional official harassment and restrictions limited their public distribution of materials.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to decline access by the United Nations to Jammu and Kashmir and limit access to the northeastern states and Maoist-controlled areas. In an August statement, UN human rights experts called on the government “to take urgent action to address the alarming human rights situation in the territory.” The UN special rapporteurs noted that since August 2019, “the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been in free fall,” and they were “particularly concerned that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many protesters are still in detention and internet restrictions remain in place.” The group appealed to the government “to schedule pending visits as a matter of urgency, particularly of the experts dealing with torture and disappearances.”
Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC is an independent and impartial investigatory and advisory body, established by the central government, with a dual mandate to investigate and remedy instances of human rights violations and to promote public awareness of human rights. It is directly accountable to parliament but works in close coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Justice. It has a mandate to address official violations of human rights or negligence in the prevention of violations, intervene in judicial proceedings involving allegations of human rights violations, and review any factors (including acts of terrorism) that infringe on human rights. The law authorizes the NHRC to issue summonses and compel testimony, produce documentation, and requisition public records. The NHRC also recommends appropriate remedies for abuses in the form of compensation to the victims of government killings or their families.
The NHRC has neither the authority to enforce the implementation of its recommendations nor the power to address allegations against military and paramilitary personnel. Human rights groups claimed these limitations hampered the work of the NHRC. Some human rights NGOs criticized the NHRC’s budgetary dependence on the government and its policy of not investigating abuses more than one year. Some claimed the NHRC did not register all complaints, dismissed cases arbitrarily, did not investigate cases thoroughly, rerouted complaints back to the alleged violator, and did not adequately protect complainants.
Of 28 states, 24 have human rights commissions, which operated independently under the auspices of the NHRC. Some human rights groups alleged local politics influenced state committees, which were less likely to offer fair judgments than the NHRC. The Human Rights Law Network, a nonprofit legal aid group, observed most state committees had few or no minority, civil society, or female representatives. The group claimed the committees were ineffective and at times hostile toward victims, hampered by political appointments, understaffed, and underfunded.
The government closed the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission in 2019 and ordered the NHRC to oversee human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. The NHRC has jurisdiction over all human rights violations, except in certain cases involving the military. The NHRC has authority to investigate cases of human rights violations committed by the Ministry of Home Affairs and paramilitary forces operating under the AFSPA in the northeast states.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape in most cases, although marital rape is not illegal when the woman is older than 15. According to legal experts, the law does not criminalize rape of adult men. Rape of minors is covered under the gender-neutral POCSO laws. Official statistics pointed to rape as one of the country’s fastest-growing crimes, prompted at least in part by the increasing willingness of victims to report rapes, although observers believed the number of rapes remained vastly underreported.
Law enforcement and legal recourse for rape victims were inadequate, and the judicial system was overtaxed and unable to address the problem effectively. Police sometimes worked to reconcile rape victims and their attackers; in some cases they encouraged female rape victims to marry their attackers. The NGO International Center for Research on Women noted low conviction rates in rape cases was one of the main reasons sexual violence continued unabated and at times unreported. The NGO Lawyers Collective observed the length of trials, lack of victim support, and inadequate protection of witnesses and victims remained major concerns and were more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incidents of rape continued to be a persistent problem, including gang rape, rape of minors, rape against lower-caste women or women from religious and nonreligious minority communities by upper-caste men, and rape by government officials.
The minimum mandatory punishment for rape is 10 years’ imprisonment. The minimum sentence for the rape of a girl younger than age 16 is between 20 years’ and life imprisonment; the minimum sentence of gang rape of a girl younger than 12 is punishable by either life imprisonment or the death penalty. An online analytic tool, the Investigation Tracking System for Sexual Offenses, exists for states and union territories to monitor and track time-bound investigation in sexual assault cases.
On March 20, the four men convicted of the high-profile 2012 gang rape of Nirbhaya were hanged. The victim is known as Nirbhaya, meaning the fearless one, because of the law forbidding the disclosure of rape victim names. Nirbhaya, a medical student at the time, was attacked on a bus by six men while traveling home with a friend. Her friend was beaten unconscious, and she was gang-raped and brutally tortured with an iron rod. Nirbhaya died two weeks later. Of the six arrested, one died in his jail cell and another, a minor at the time, was released after three years in a reform facility. The four remaining were sentenced to death and were hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail after the Supreme Court dismissed their final petitions.
On July 13, a woman who filed a complaint of gang rape in Bihar was arrested for misbehavior while recording her statement in court. The 22-year-old survivor was accompanied by two social workers, and the three were arrested on charges of disrupting court proceedings when the survivor, who was illiterate, refused to sign a written statement for the court and demanded it be read aloud by the social workers. Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a nonprofit organization, protested the arrests, asserting the survivor’s distressed state and noncompliance were caused by the trauma of the gang rape, the ordeal of narrating the incident during police investigation and court proceedings, and the lack of family and mental health support after the incident. As of July 15, the three women were being held in jail under judicial custody, and one of the five men accused of the gang rape was arrested. A group of 376 lawyers from across the country sent a letter to the Patna High Court (in Bihar) to express their concern regarding the local court’s handling of the case.
On September 28, CHRI released Barriers in Accessing Justice: The Experiences of 14 Rape Survivors in Uttar Pradesh, India, that detailed strong evidence of the barriers imposed by police on women survivors, including caste-based discrimination, discouragement to report the crime, and forceful acceptance of illegal compromises. The report noted legal remedies against police malpractice were difficult to pursue and often did not provide redress.
On September 30, Uttar Pradesh police cremated, without family consent, the body of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in her native village in Hathras, hours after she succumbed to injuries allegedly inflicted in a gang rape by four upper-caste men on September 14. Her death and subsequent cremation without the presence of family members sparked outrage among opposition parties and civil society. Police arrested all four accused, and the Uttar Pradesh state government assembled a three-member team to probe the incident.
On October 5, citing recent cases of alleged rape and murder, including in Hathras, the UN resident coordinator in the country expressed concern at the continuing cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
Women in conflict areas, such as in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, as well as vulnerable Dalit or tribal women, were often victims of rape or threats of rape. National crime statistics indicated Dalit women were disproportionately victimized compared with other caste affiliations.
The Kerala State Women’s Commission registered a rape case involving a 75-year-old Dalit woman suffering from dementia and other mental health issues. The woman was attacked and raped by a group of unidentified men on August 4 in Ernakulam District, Kerala State.
Domestic violence continued to be a problem. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown led to increased instances of domestic violence. Women and children were more vulnerable due to loss of livelihood of the perpetrator and the family being forced to remain indoors, where victims were locked in with their abusers with limited means to escape or access to resources. The Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi High Courts took note of the increased problem of domestic violence and directed national protection agencies to consider additional measures to address the rising instances of domestic violence.
Local authorities made efforts to address the safety of women. On August 10, the National Commission of Women (NCW) reported 2,914 complaints of crimes committed against women in July, including 660 cases of domestic violence. This represented the highest monthly level since November 2018. The data showed Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Delhi, and Punjab as the states with the highest levels of domestic violence against women. The latest available NCRB data estimated the conviction rate for crimes against women was 23 percent.
During the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, the NCW received 239 complaints of domestic violence–a significant increase from the 123 complaints it received in the month preceding the lockdown. To provide protection and assistance, the NCW launched a WhatsApp helpline for women.
Acid attacks against women continued to cause death and permanent disfigurement. On February 28, a family member attacked a 25-year-old pregnant woman and her sister-in-law with acid in Haryana. After being hospitalized for one month, the pregnant victim succumbed to the wounds.
On July 15, Telangana police launched the “CybHer” online awareness campaign to protect women and children in cyberspace. The Telangana police chief stated that cybercrimes went up by 70 percent in the state during the COVID-19 lockdown, and women and children were the specific targets. The campaign was launched on multiple social media platforms.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, between 70 and 90 percent of Dawoodi Bohras, a population of approximately one million concentrated in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Delhi, practiced FGM/C.
In July 2018 the Supreme Court heard a public interest case seeking to ban the practice of FGM/C. The government, represented by Attorney General K. K. Venugopal, told the court that it supported the petitioners’ plea that the practice be punishable under the provisions of the penal code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act. Days after a September 2018 meeting between the prime minister and the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who supports the practice of FGM/C, the government reversed its position, and the attorney general stated the matter should be referred to a five-member panel of the Supreme Court to decide on the issue of religious rights and freedom.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law forbids the acceptance of marriage dowry, but many families continued to offer and accept dowries, and dowry disputes remained a serious problem. NCRB data showed authorities arrested 20,545 persons for dowry deaths in 2016. Most states employed dowry prohibition officers. A 2010 Supreme Court ruling mandates all trial courts to charge defendants in dowry-death cases with murder.
So-called honor killings remained a problem, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana; they were usually attributable to the victim’s marrying against his or her family’s wishes. In April, three persons were arrested for the killing of a 19-year-old girl in Punjab. Family members allegedly poisoned the victim with sleeping pills, strangled her to death, and cremated her body. An honor killing of a 16-year-old girl was reported on May 2 in Rajasthan. She was strangled, burned, and buried allegedly by her mother and uncle because she eloped with a local boy of whom her family did not approve. The mother and uncle were arrested. On July 17 in Uttar Pradesh, a woman was shot and killed by her three brothers for marrying outside her caste two years previously. The accused also attacked the husband, leaving him grievously injured. Police arrested all three brothers.
On June 22, the Madras High Court acquitted B. Chinnasamy, who was accused in 2017 of hiring persons to kill his daughter’s husband because he belonged to a Scheduled Caste. The court also commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment for five previously convicted individuals. Several human rights activists described the verdicts as “a travesty of justice.”
There were reports women and girls in the devadasi system of symbolic marriages to Hindu deities (a form of so-called ritual prostitution) were victims of rape or sexual abuse at the hands of priests and temple patrons, including sex trafficking. NGOs suggested families exploited some girls from lower castes in sex trafficking in temples to mitigate household financial burdens and the prospect of marriage dowries. Some states have laws to curb sex trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls in temple service. Enforcement of these laws remained lax, and the problem was widespread. Some observers estimated that more than 450,000 women and girls were exploited in temple-related prostitution.
On August 13, Telangana Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission chairman E. Srinivas told media that he observed continuing prevalence of the banned Jogini system, under which Dalit girls are forced into sexual slavery in the name of dedicating them to a village deity. He encouraged village chiefs to be held responsible for informing police and other authorities if such practices continued. District authorities announced protection of agricultural lands given to the rehabilitated Jogini women by the government in 1989.
No federal law addresses accusations of witchcraft; however, authorities may use other legal provisions as an alternative for a victim accused of witchcraft. Most reports stated villagers and local councils usually banned those accused of witchcraft from the village. Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Assam, and Jharkhand have laws criminalizing those who accuse others of witchcraft.
On May 4, three women in Bihar were assaulted, tonsured, stripped seminaked, and forced to consume human urine and excreta by a mob that suspected them of witchcraft. Media sources reported that no bystanders came forward to help the women. Police acted after seeing a video of the incident, arresting nine persons. According to reports, the three women, all from the same family, were performing puja, a worship ritual, for a sick child at night when they were seen by villagers who suspected them of using black magic, after which they were targeted and abused the next morning.
On August 17, media reported family members beat 30-year-old Geeta Devi for allegedly practicing witchcraft in Jharkhand’s Giridih District. Geeta died before police could arrive. The deceased’s mother in-law filed a FIR with the Gawan police station to investigate the crime.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a serious problem. Authorities required all state departments and institutions with more than 50 employees to operate committees to prevent and address sexual harassment, often referred to as “eve teasing.” By law sexual harassment includes one or more unwelcome acts or behavior, such as physical contact, a request for sexual favors, making sexually suggestive remarks, or showing pornography.
In February media sources reported that female trainee clerks working at the Surat Municipal Corporation were subjected to gynecological finger tests in a mandatory fitness test by female doctors at the Surat Municipal Institute of Medical Education and Research, a state-run hospital. The corporation’s employees union lodged a complaint when approximately 100 employees reported the incident. The women confided that they felt their privacy was violated when they were asked to strip naked and stand in groups while undergoing the test and being asked intimate questions about their pregnancy history. The Surat municipal commissioner formed a committee to investigate the allegations.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.
The law prohibits the use of all technologies for the purpose of sex selection before or after conception. Nevertheless, although not widely enforced, policies and guidelines that penalized families with more than two children remained in place in various states. Certain states continued to maintain quotas for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children.
Many states promoted female sterilization as a family planning method, which has resulted in risky, substandard procedures and limited access to nonpermanent methods. The national government does not have the authority to regulate state public health policies. Some women, particularly poor and lower-caste women, were reportedly pressured to have tubal ligations, hysterectomies, or other forms of sterilization.
Almost all states implement “girl child promotion” programs, intended to counter prenatal sex selection. In 2015 the government launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao program to address a decline in the child sex ratio. According to government data, the sex ratio at birth improved from 918 girl-births for every 1,000 boy-births in 2014-2015 to 934 girl-births for every 1,000 boy-births in 2019-2020 due to the program.
The government recognized the role of health-care professionals in treating survivors of sexual violence and implemented protocols that meet the international standards for such medical care. Government directives instruct health facilities to ensure survivors of all forms of sexual violence receive immediate access to health care services, including emergency contraception, police protection, emergency shelter, forensic services, and referrals for legal aid and other services. Implementation of the guidelines was uneven, however, due to limited resources and social stigma.
For some populations, limited access to quality reproductive and maternal health care services–including prenatal care, skilled care at childbirth, and support in the weeks after childbirth–contributed to high maternal mortality. The government Office of the Registrar General Special Bulletin on Maternal Mortality in India 2016-18 estimated that the maternal mortality ratio declined to 113 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2016-2018 from 130 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014-2016.
Care received by women, especially those from marginalized and low-income groups, at public health facilities was often inadequate, contributing to a reluctance to seek treatment. Although government initiatives resulted in a significant increase in institutional births, there were reports that health facilities continued to be overburdened, underequipped, and undersupplied.
Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced and involuntary sterilization. The government promoted female sterilization as a form of family planning for decades. Some women, especially poor and lower-caste women, reportedly were pressured by their husbands and families to have tubal ligations or hysterectomies. The government provided monetary compensation for the wage loss, transportation costs, drugs and dressing, and follow-up visits to women accepting contraceptive methods, including voluntary sterilization. There were no formal restrictions on access to other forms of family planning; however, despite recent efforts to expand the range of contraceptive choices, voluntary sterilization remained the preferred method due to the costs and limited availability of alternative contraceptive choices.
Policies penalizing families with more than two children remained in place in seven states, but some authorities did not enforce them. There were reports these policies created pressure on women with more than two children to use contraception, including permanent methods such as sterilization, or even termination of subsequent pregnancies. Certain states maintained government reservations for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children and reduced subsidies and access to health care for those who have more than two.
To counter sex selection, almost all states introduced “girl child promotion” plans to promote the education and well-being of girls, some of which required a certificate of sterilization for the parents to collect benefits.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination in the workplace and requires equal pay for equal work, but employers reportedly often paid women less than men for the same job, discriminated against women in employment and credit applications, and promoted women less frequently than men.
Many tribal land systems, including in Bihar, deny tribal women the right to own land. Other laws or customs relating to the ownership of assets and land accord women little control over land use, retention, or sale.
In February, Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani told the lower house of parliament the sex ratio at birth was showing “improving trends” and increased from 918 to 931 per 1,000 live births at the national level between 2014 and 2019. Additionally, 395 of 640 districts, according to the 2011 census, showed improvements in the sex ratio during the same period.
According to media reports, the taboo and fear of giving birth to a girl child drove some women toward sex-selective abortion or attempts to sell the baby. Dowry, while illegal, carried a steep cost, sometimes bankrupting families. Women and girl children were ostracized in some tribal communities.
Birth Registration: The law establishes state government procedures for birth registration. UNICEF estimated authorities registered 58 percent of national births each year. Children lacking citizenship or registration may not be able to access public services, enroll in school, or obtain identification documents later in life.
Education: The constitution provides free education for all children from ages six to 14, with a compulsory education age through age 15, but the government did not always comply with this requirement. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Report revealed that enrollment rates for both male and female students dropped by nearly 30 percent between primary and secondary school. Additionally, the report found that, while girls had a slight lead in primary and secondary education enrollment rates, boys had greater educational attainment at all levels.
Data from NGO Pratham’s 2019 Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) noted in January that when there was a paucity of resources and parents had to choose which child to invest in, they chose to provide “better quality” education to sons in the family.
According to UNICEF, more than 60 percent of secondary-school-age children with disabilities did not attend school. Additionally, since the minimum age for work is lower than the compulsory education age, children may be encouraged to leave school before the completion of compulsory education.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, but it does not recognize physical abuse by caregivers, neglect, or psychological abuse as punishable offenses. Although banned, teachers often used corporal punishment.
The India Child Protection Fund reported increased incidences of cyber or sexual abuse involving children (such as increased consumption of child pornography). With children spending more time indoors and online, often without supervision, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report expressed concern that children were more vulnerable to online sexual predators.
On June 28, Kerala police arrested 47 persons across the state as a result of a large-scale investigation into online child sexual exploitation. According to a senior police official, there was a 120 percent increase in child sexual exploitation cases during the national lockdown in Kerala.
In July child rights advocates released Rights of Children in the Time of COVID-19, which contained sector-specific recommendations for state action to protect the rights of children during the pandemic. The release of the report was attended by two recently retired justices of the Supreme Court and various government officers and child rights experts and endorsed by 212 individuals and organizations.
The government sponsored a toll-free 24-hour helpline for children in distress. From January through July, the national CHILDLINE hotline for children in distress received more than 39,490 calls from the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The CHILDLINE officials noted calls concerned shelter, medical aid, child marriage, and the abuse of children.
On February 25, the Madras High Court reversed a prior lower court judgment that exonerated two teachers from allegations of sexual harassment. The court sentenced G. Nagaraj and G. Gugazhenthi to prison for three and five years, respectively, for sexually harassing several female adolescent students.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law sets the legal age of marriage for women at 18 and men at 21, and it empowers courts to annul early and forced marriages. The law does not characterize a marriage between a girl younger than 18 and a boy younger than 21 as illegal, but it recognizes such unions as voidable. The law also sets penalties for persons who perform, arrange, or participate in child marriages. Authorities did not consistently enforce the law nor address girls who were raped being forced into marriage.
In June the government constituted a task force to review the increase of the minimum permissible age for marriage of girls from 18 to 21 years. Prime Minister Modi made a special announcement of the government’s review, and there was significant advocacy against the proposal by women and child rights advocates who believed the change would limit young adults’ autonomy. Additionally, critics believed the proposal did not address the core issues regarding child marriage, such as extreme poverty and lack of education.
The law establishes a full-time child-marriage prohibition officer in every state to prevent child marriage. These individuals have the power to intervene when a child marriage is taking place, document violations of the law, file charges against parents, remove children from dangerous situations, and deliver them to local child-protection authorities.
Although the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) State of World Population 2020 report showed a decline in child marriages over the past decade, UN demographers feared the COVID-19 pandemic would have adverse effects on this progress. According to media reports, West Bengal saw more than 500 cases of child marriage between March and June during the COVID-19 national lockdown. Officials reported that in most cases underage girls were forced to marry because of their family’s loss of earnings and financial distress caused by the lockdown.
Senior officials from Karnataka’s State Commission for Protection of Child Rights reported more than 100 child marriages were conducted in the state during the national lockdown. According to a commission senior official, there were more than 550 complaints of child marriages.
Media and children’s’ rights activists believed child marriages increased in Maharashtra during the pandemic. Santosh Shinde, a former member of Maharashtra’s State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told media more than 200 cases of child marriage were reported between March and June. Shinde said that 90 percent of these marriages were averted with the help of local authorities and vigilant local citizens. Other activists echoed the increased economic vulnerability of children due to the pandemic and the push for families to marry off their preteen daughters largely for economic benefits.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits child pornography and sets the legal age of consent at 18. It is illegal to pay for sex with a minor, to induce a minor into prostitution or any form of “illicit sexual intercourse,” or to sell or buy a minor for the purposes of prostitution. Violators are subject to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
The law provides for at least one special court dedicated to sexual offenses against children (POCSO courts) to be set up in each district, although implementation of this provision lagged. In a December 2019 judgment, the Supreme Court gave a 60-day deadline to set up such courts in all districts with more than 100 pending cases of child sexual abuse.
Civil society welcomed these improvements in prosecution of sexual crimes against children; however, critics raised concern regarding the law for the potential to criminalize adolescents engaging in consensual sexual behavior. NCRB data showed that the number of 16- to 18-year-old “victims” under the POCSO Act was higher than the number of child victims from all the other age groups. The result of this trend was that a number of adolescent boys entered the juvenile justice system charged with rape.
On March 13, the Ministry of Women and Child Development published new rules to protect children from sexual offenses. The rules provide for speedier compensation, increasing public awareness about CHILDLINE services, and providing legal aid assistance. In addition the rules provide a directive to state governments to enact a child protection policy to ensure the prohibition of violence against children. A new provision that directs immediate financial help to victims of child sexual abuse by the Child Welfare Committees was also introduced. NGOs noted the procedure was not being implemented in a regular fashion by the committees.
In June the Delhi High Court held it is mandatory to issue notice to a complainant to ensure their presence in every bail application filed by the accused in their case. This ensures the complainant is informed of the proceedings and gets an opportunity to argue against bail. Other high courts were following suit. For instance, in July the Orissa High Court issued similar directions to the POCSO courts operating under its jurisdiction.
In June the Delhi High Court held that under the POCSO Act, 2012, and the POCSO Rules, 2020, there is no bar on a victim applying for monetary compensation more than once if their circumstances required. This was significant, since legal cases typically last for years, and a victim’s needs may grow as time passes.
The West Bengal High Court criticized the state police for not completing investigations on time in POCSO cases, a practice that led to automatic bail for the accused persons. The court directed that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, investigations must be completed on time so that the accused persons do not benefit from a delay on the part of police. A similar problem was noted in other states as well, for instance in Bihar and Delhi.
The Kerala High Court observed police officials investigating POCSO cases lacked training and related sensitivity required to handle matters pertaining to cases of child sex abuse. Collection of evidence often did not consider the trauma that the victim suffered, further deteriorating the quality of the investigation process.
Media report instances of authorities not registering cases of child sexual abuse when they are first reported. In August a POCSO court in Kerala issued a notice to police for not registering a case against doctors who knew of a child sexual abuse case but did not report it to police.
There was a continued focus on providing speedy justice to victims of sexual abuse. A 2016 study by the NGO Counsel to Secure Justice highlighted a large number of child sexual abuse cases were pending trial or delayed in trial.
Displaced Children: Displaced children, including refugees, IDPs, and street children, faced restrictions on access to government services (see also section 2.d.).
Institutionalized Children: Lax law enforcement and a lack of safeguards encouraged an atmosphere of impunity in several group homes and orphanages.
In 2018 the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights estimated 1,300 of the country’s approximately 9,000 shelters for vulnerable individuals were not registered with the government and operated with little or no oversight. In several cases government-funded shelter homes continued to operate despite significant gaps in mandatory reporting and allegations of abuse, at times due to alleged political connections. Police documented at least 156 residents, including sex trafficking victims, missing from six shelters as of March; at least one shelter owner had reportedly sold some of the women and girls for prostitution.
In April the Supreme Court directed state governments to improve the handling of the COVID-19 crisis among institutionalized children. The states were asked to file detailed reports, and various guidelines were issued to different child-care institutions on how to deal with the pandemic-induced crisis.
On June 24, the All India Democratic Women’s Association submitted a memorandum to the NHRC regarding the COVID-19 outbreak in the government-run shelter home for girls in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Fifty-seven minor girls tested positive for the virus, five of whom were also found to be pregnant. The women’s association asserted poor handling of the first cases of COVID-19 in the shelter home, extreme overcrowding, and poor sanitary conditions exacerbated the spread of the virus and pointed to the neglect of the state government. The association, NHRC, and state commission for women demanded proper treatment for the girls and detailed reports regarding the case.
In January the Supreme Court revised the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 to prevent fewer children being tried as adults. The Supreme Court ruled that children can be tried as an adult only for “heinous” crimes that have a minimum punishment of seven years. In view of this judgment, the Juvenile Justice Board may conduct a preliminary assessment into a child’s mental and physical capacity to decide whether the child should be tried as an adult.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution does not explicitly mention disability. The law provides equal rights for persons with a variety of disabilities, and a 2016 law increased the number of recognized disabilities, including persons with Parkinson’s disease and victims of acid attacks. The law set a two-year deadline for the government to provide persons with disabilities with unrestricted free access to physical infrastructure and public transportation systems.
The law also reserves 3 percent of all educational places and 4 percent of government jobs for persons with disabilities. The government allocated funds to programs and NGOs to increase the number of jobs filled. In 2017 a government panel decided that private news networks must accompany public broadcasts with sign language interpretations and closed captions to accommodate persons with disabilities.
Despite these efforts, problems remained. Private-sector employment of persons with disabilities remained low, despite governmental incentives. Discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care was more pervasive in rural areas, and 45 percent of the country’s population of persons with disabilities were illiterate. There was limited accessibility to public buildings.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare estimated 25 percent of individuals with mental disabilities were homeless. Mainstream schools remained inadequately equipped with teachers trained in inclusive education, resource material, and appropriate curricula. Patients in some mental-health institutions faced food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of adequate medical care. HRW reported women and girls with disabilities occasionally were forced into mental hospitals against their will.