NO EMBARGO ON TREATING TESTIMONY OF A CHILD WITNESS AS THE SOLE BASIS FOR CONVICTION: P&H HC - Business Guardian
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NO EMBARGO ON TREATING TESTIMONY OF A CHILD WITNESS AS THE SOLE BASIS FOR CONVICTION: P&H HC

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While stating that statutorily there exists no prohibition on child witnesses to depose in criminal or civil cases, except w.hen the child does not understand the questions put to them, the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a learned, laudable, landmark and latest judgment titled Sanjay Vs State of Haryana in CRA-D-1903-DB-2014 (O&M) delivered as recently as on February 4, 2022 has observed that when a child fully understands the questions and can provide answers regarding the same, rationally, then the testimony of a child witness can be the sole reason for conviction. In an appeal filed by the appellant against the judgment passed by the Additional Sessions Judge, convicting the accused under Section 342 and Section 376 of IPC and Section 4 of POCSO Act, a Bench of Justice Ritu Bahri and Justice Ashok Kumar Verma, upheld the impugned judgment and noted the steep rise in child rape cases citing the vulnerable position of a girl child and rape is one of the major modes of their exploitation. The Bench also stated clearly that the High Courts must only interfere in such cases where it becomes apparent from the records that the trial courts have erred in regarding the child as a reliable witness and in absence of that, “the appellate court would be loath to disregard the evidence of the child witness”.

To start with, this brief, brilliant, and balanced judgment authored by Justice Ashok Kumar Verma for a Bench of Punjab and Haryana High Court comprising of Justice Ritu Bahri and himself sets the ball rolling by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, “This appeal has been filed against the judgment of conviction dated 27.10.2014 and order on quantum of sentence dated 28.10.2014 passed by the Additional Sessions Judge, Faridabad, whereby accused-appellant (Sanjay) has been convicted and sentenced as under:-

To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 2 that, “Brief facts, as culled out from the paper-book, are that on 11.05.2014, complainant-Neetu Devi along with her husband-Bushan Singh and daughter-victim came to the police station and got recorded her statement to the effect that on 10.05.2014, her daughter, aged about 04 years, had gone to the shop of Sanjay for purchasing curd. When for a long time she did not return, complainant had gone to see her, whereupon she found that her daughter was coming from the shop of Sanjay. She inquired from her daughter, where she was, then her daughter told her that uncle, wearing red T-shirt, had taken her inside the room and tried to commit rape upon her after removing her pant. Thereafter, she revealed that at that time, Sanjay was being called by some person from outside, who after leaving her inside, came outside for attending that person. She tied her trouser and came out. Thereafter, Neetu Devi asked Sanjay about the incident, whereupon he (Sanjay) got frightened, closed his shop and fled away. She narrated this fact to her husband.”

As it turned out, the Bench then enunciates in para 3 that, “On the basis of statement/complaint made by complainant Neetu Devi, FIR No.166 dated 11.05.2014, under Sections 376, 511, 342 IPC and Section 4 of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, was registered at Police Station, Chhainsa, Faridabad. During investigation, accused-appellant was arrested, who suffered a disclosure statement Ex.PF. victim was medico-legally examined and her ossification test was got conducted. Rough site plan was got prepared. On completion of investigation, report under Section 173 Cr.P.C. was prepared and presented in the Court of Illaqa Magistrate. Vide order dated 15.07.2014, Illaqa Magistrate committed the case to the Court of Sessions. Copies of challan and other documents were supplied to the accused-appellant free of costs, as envisaged under Section 207 Cr.P.C.”

Needless to say, the Bench then discloses in para 4 that, “Thereafter, finding a prima facie case, charge under Sections 342 and 376 IPC and Section 4 of POCSO Act was framed against the accused- appellant, to which, he pleaded not guilty and claimed trial.”

It is worth noting that the Bench then stipulates in para 24 that, “The following guiding principles, governing the admissibility and reliability of the evidence of child witnesses, are readily discernible from the above cited judicial pronouncements of the Supreme Court:

(i) There is no absolute principle, to the effect that the evidence of child witnesses cannot inspire confidence, or be relied upon.

(ii) Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 discounts the competence, of persons of tender age, to testify, only where they are prevented from understanding the questions put to them, or from giving rational answers to those questions, on account of their age.

(iii) If, therefore, the child witness is found competent to depose to the facts, and is reliable, his evidence can be relied upon and can constitute the basis of conviction.

(iv) The Court has to ascertain, for this purpose, whether (a) the witness is able to understand the questions put to him and give rational answers thereto, (b) the demeanour of the witness is similar to that of any other competent witness, (c) the witness possesses sufficient intelligence and comprehension, to depose, (d) the witness was not tutored, (e) the witness is in a position to discern between the right and wrong, truth and untruth, and (f) the witness fully understands the implications of what he says, as well as the sanctity that would attach to the evidence being given by him.

(v) The presumption is that every witness is competent to depose, unless the court considers that he is prevented from doing so, for one of the reasons set out under Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. It is, therefore, desirable that judges and Magistrates should always record their positive opinion that the child understands the duty of speaking the truth, as, otherwise, the credibility of the witness would be seriously affected, and may become liable to rejection altogether.

(vi) Inasmuch as the Trial Court would have the child before it, and would be in a position to accurately assess the competence of the child to depose, the subjective decision of the Trial Court, in this regard, deserves to be accorded due respect. The appellate court would interfere, therewith, only where the record indicates, unambiguously, that the child was not competent to depose as a witness, or that his deposition was tutored. Twin, and to an extent mutually conflicting, considerations, have to be borne in mind, while ascertaining the competency of a child witness to justify. On the one hand, the evidence of the child witness has to be assessed with caution and circumspection, given the fact that children, especially of tender years, are open to influence and could possibly be tutored. On the other hand, the evidence of a competent child witness commands credibility, as children, classically, are assumed to bear no ill-will and malice against anyone, and it is, therefore, much more likely that their evidence would be unbiased and uninfluenced by any extraneous considerations.

(vii) It is always prudent to search for corroborative evidence, where conviction is sought to be based, to a greater or lesser extent, on the evidence of a child witness. The availability of any such corroborative evidence would lend additional credibility to the testimony of the witness.”

Be it noted, the Bench then rightly points out in para 26 that, “Furthermore, in the present case it is not disputed that the victim (Child witness) was not competent to depose to the facts and was not a reliable witness. Once a child witness, if found competent to depose to the facts and reliable one such evidence could be the basis of conviction. In other words even in the absence of oath, the evidence of a child witness can be considered under Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 provided that such witness is able to understand the answers thereof. These views of ours are fortified by the judgment of Honble Supreme Court in the case of Dattu Ramrao Sakhare Vs. State of Maharashtra : 1997 (5) SCC 341.”

Without mincing any words, the Bench then unequivocally holds in para 36 that, “Child rape cases are cases of perverse lust for sex where even innocent children are not spared in pursuit of the sexual pleasure. There cannot be anything more obscene than this. It is a crime against humanity. Many such cases are not even brought to light because of social stigma attached thereto. According to some surveys, there has been steep rise in the child rape cases. Children need special care and protection. In such cases, responsibility on the shoulders of the courts is more onerous so as to provide proper legal protection to these children. Their physical and mental immobility call for such protection. Children are the natural resource of our country and they are country’s future. Hope of tomorrow rests on them. In our country, a girl child is in a very vulnerable position and one of the modes of her exploitation is rape besides other mode of sexual abuse. These factors point towards a different approach required to be adopted.”

Finally, the Bench then holds in para 37 that, “For the aforementioned reasons, the appeal fails and is dismissed. Registry to return back the original records to the trial court.”

In a nutshell, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has made it indubitably clear in this noteworthy case that there is no embargo in treating testimony of a child witness as the sole basis of conviction. A child witness is also a competent witness just like any other witness. Only certain precautions should be followed in recording their testimony as stated hereinabove. Of course, all the courts must adhere to it.

 

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Policy&Politics

Govt extends date for submission of R&D proposals

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The Government has extended the deadline for submission of proposals related to R&D scheme under the National Green Hydrogen Mission. The R&D scheme seeks to make the production, storage, transportation and utilisation of green hydrogen more affordable. It also aims to improve the efficiency, safety and reliability of the relevant processes and technologies involved in the green hydrogen value chain. Subsequent to the issue of the guidelines, the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy issued a call for proposals on 16 March, 2024.

While the Call for Proposals is receiving encouraging response, some stakeholders have requested more time for submission of R&D proposals. In view of such requests and to allow sufficient time to the institutions for submitting good-quality proposals, the Ministry has extended the deadline for submission of proposals to 27th April, 2024.

The scheme also aims to foster partnerships among industry, academia and government in order to establish an innovation ecosystem for green hydrogen technologies. The scheme will also help the scaling up and commercialisation of green hydrogen technologies by providing the necessary policy and regulatory support.

The R&D scheme will be implemented with a total budgetary outlay of Rs 400 crore till the financial year 2025-26. The support under the R&D programme includes all components of the green hydrogen value chain, namely, production, storage, compression, transportation, and utilisation.

The R&D projects supported under the mission will be goal-oriented, time bound, and suitable to be scaled up. In addition to industrial and institutional research, innovative MSMEs and start-ups working on indigenous technology development will also be encouraged under the Scheme.

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Policy&Politics

India, Brazil, South Africa to press for labour & social issues, sustainability

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The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment.

India, on Thursday, joined the G20’s two-day 2nd Employment Working Group (EWG) meeting under the Brazilian Presidency which is all set to address labour, employment and social issues for strong, sustainable, balanced and job-rich growth for all. India is co-chairing the 2nd EWG meeting, along with Brazil and South Africa, and is represented by Sumita Dawra, Secretary, Labour & Employment.

The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment. India has pointed out that the priority areas of the 2nd EWG at Brasilia align with the priority areas and outcomes of previous G20 presidencies including Indian presidency, and commended the continuity in the multi-year agenda to create lasting positive change in the world of work. This not only sustains but also elevates the work initiated by the EWG during the Indian Presidency.

The focus areas for the 2nd EWG meeting are — creating quality employment and promoting decent labour, addressing a just transition amidst digital and energy transformations, leveraging technologies to enhance the quality of life for al and the emphasis on gender equity and promoting diversity in the world of employment for inclusivity, driving innovation and growth. On the first day of the meeting, deliberations were held on the over-arching theme of promotion of gender equality and promoting diversity in the workplace.

The Indian delegation emphasized the need for creating inclusive environments by ensuring equal representation and empowerment for all, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. To increase female labour force participation, India has enacted occupational safety health and working conditions code, 2020 which entitles women to be employed in all establishments for all types of work with their consent at night time. This provision has already been implemented in underground mines.

In 2017, the Government amended the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which increased the ‘maternity leave with pay protection’ from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for all women working in establishments employing 10 or more workers. This is expected to reduce the motherhood pay gap among the working mothers. To aid migrant workers, India’s innovative policy ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ allows migrants to access their entitled food grains from anywhere in the Public Distribution System network in the country.

A landmark step in fostering inclusion in the workforce is the e-Shram portal, launched to create a national database of unorganized workers, especially migrant and construction workers. This initiative, providing the e-Shram card, enables access to benefits under various social security schemes.

The portal allows an unorganized worker to register himself or herself on the portal on self-declaration basis, under 400 occupations in 30 broad occupation sectors. More than 290 million unorganized workers have been registered on this portal so far.

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Policy&Politics

India to spend USD 3.7 billion to fence Myanmar border

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India plans to spend nearly $3.7 billion to fence its 1,610-km (1,000-mile) porous border with Myanmar within about a decade, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, to prevent smuggling and other illegal activities. New Delhi said earlier this year it would fence the border and end a decades-old visa-free movement policy with coup-hit Myanmar for border citizens for reasons of national security and to maintain the demographic structure of its northeastern region.

A government committee earlier this month approved the cost for the fencing, which needs to be approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, said the source who declined to be named as they were not authorised to talk to the media. The prime minister’s office and the ministries of home, finance, foreign affairs and information and broadcasting did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Myanmar has so far not commented on India’s fencing plans. Since a military coup in Myanmar in 2021, thousands of civilians and hundreds of troops have fled from there to Indian states where people on both sides share ethnic and familial ties. This has worried New Delhi because of risk of communal tensions spreading to India. Some members of the Indian government have also blamed the porous border for abetting the tense situation in the restive north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, abutting Myanmar.

For nearly a year, Manipur has been engulfed by a civil war-like situation between two ethnic groups, one of which shares lineage with Myanmar’s Chin tribe. The committee of senior Indian officials also agreed to build parallel roads along the fence and 1,700 km (1,050 miles) of feeder roads connecting military bases to the border, the source said.

The fence and the adjoining road will cost nearly 125 million rupees per km, more than double that of the 55 million per km cost for the border fence with Bangladesh built in 2020, the source said, because of the difficult hilly terrain and the use of technology to prevent intrusion and corrosion.

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Policy&Politics

ONLY 2-3% RECOVERED FROM $2-3 TN ANNUAL ILLEGAL TRADE THROUGH BANKING: INTERPOL

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However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity.

In a press briefing held on Wednesday, Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock unveiled alarming statistics regarding the extent of undetected money laundering and illegal trade transactions plaguing the global banking network. Stock revealed that over 96% of the money transacted through this network remains undetected, with only 2-3% of the estimated USD 2-3 trillion from illegal trade being tracked and returned to victims.

Interpol, working in conjunction with law enforcement agencies and private financial sectors across its 196 member countries, is committed to combating the rising tide of fraud perpetrated by illicit traders. These criminal activities encompass a wide spectrum, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, arms dealing, and the illicit movement of financial assets.

Stock emphasized the urgent need to establish mechanisms for monitoring transactions within the global banking network. Currently, efforts are underway to engage banking associations worldwide in setting up such a framework. However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity. The lack of real-time information sharing poses a significant obstacle to law enforcement agencies in their efforts to combat money laundering and illegal trade.

Stock underscored the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in exacerbating this problem, citing its use in voice cloning and other fraudulent activities. Criminal organizations are leveraging AI technologies to expand their operations and evade detection on a global scale. Stock emphasized the importance of enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies and private sector banking groups. Realtime information sharing is crucial in the fight against illegal wealth accumulation.

Drawing inspiration from initiatives such as the “Singapore Anti-Scam Centre,” Stock called for the adoption of similar models in other countries to strengthen the collective response to financial crimes. In conclusion, Stock’s revelations underscore the pressing need for concerted action to combat global financial crimes. Enhanced cooperation between public and private sectors, coupled with innovative strategies for monitoring and combating illicit transactions, is essential to safeguarding the integrity of the global financial system.

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Policy&Politics

FM defends Atal Pension Scheme, highlights guaranteed returns

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism, asserting its design based on choice architecture and a guaranteed minimum 8% return. She emphasized the scheme’s opt-out feature, facilitating automatic premium continuation unless subscribers choose otherwise, promoting retirement savings. Sitharaman countered Congress allegations of coercion, stating the APY’s guaranteed returns irrespective of market conditions, supplemented by government subsidies.

Responding to Congress’s claim of scheme misuse, Sitharaman highlighted its intended beneficiaries – the lower-income groups. She criticized Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and emphasized the scheme’s success in targeting the needy. Sitharaman accused Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the APY’s transparent framework. The exchange underscores the political debate surrounding social welfare schemes, with the government defending its approach while opposition parties raise concerns about implementation and efficacy.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s robust defense of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism highlights the ongoing debate over social welfare schemes in India. Sitharaman’s assertion of the APY’s design principles, including its opt-out feature and guaranteed minimum return, underscores the government’s commitment to promoting retirement savings among lower-income groups. The Atal Pension Yojana, named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was launched in 2015 to provide pension benefits to workers in the unorganized sector. It aims to address the significant gap in pension coverage among India’s workforce, particularly those employed in informal and low-income sectors. The scheme offers subscribers fixed pension amounts ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 5,000 per month, depending on their contribution and age at entry, after attaining the age of 60. Sitharaman’s response comes after Congress criticism alleging the APY’s inefficacy and coercive tactics in enrolment.

Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh described the scheme as poorly designed, citing instances of subscribers dropping out due to unauthorized account openings. However, Sitharaman refuted these claims, emphasizing the APY’s transparent and beneficiary-oriented approach. The finance minister’s defense focuses on three key aspects of the APY: Choice Architecture: Sitharaman highlights the opt-out feature of the APY, which automatically continues premium payments unless subscribers choose to discontinue.

This design element aims to encourage long-term participation and ensure consistent retirement savings among subscribers. By simplifying the decision-making process, the scheme seeks to overcome inertia and promote financial discipline among participants. Guaranteed Minimum Return: Sitharaman underscores the APY’s guarantee of a minimum 8% return, irrespective of prevailing interest rates. This assurance provides subscribers with confidence in the scheme’s financial viability and incentivizes long-term savings.

The government’s commitment to subsidizing any shortfall in actual returns further strengthens the attractiveness of the APY as a retirement planning tool. Targeting the Needy: Sitharaman defends the predominance of pension accounts in lower income slabs, arguing that it reflects the scheme’s successful targeting of its intended beneficiaries – the poor and lower-middle class. She criticizes Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and suggests that the party’s opposition to welfare schemes like the APY stems from a disconnect with the needs of marginalized communities. Sitharaman’s rebuttal also addresses broader political narratives surrounding social welfare policies in India.

She accuses Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the transparent and inclusive framework of the APY. The exchange underscores the ideological differences between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress, with each side advocating for their vision of social welfare and economic development. In addition to defending the APY, Sitharaman’s remarks shed light on the broader challenges and opportunities facing India’s pension sector.

Despite significant progress in expanding pension coverage through schemes like the APY, the country still grapples with issues such as financial literacy, informal employment, and pension portability. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach involving government intervention, private sector participation, and civil society engagement.

As India strives to achieve its vision of inclusive and sustainable development, initiatives like the APY play a crucial role in promoting economic security and social equity. Sitharaman’s defense of the scheme underscores the government’s commitment to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations and ensuring their financial well-being in the long run.

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Economic

Regulatory steps will make financial sector strong, but raise cost of capital

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India’s financial system regulator, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), is demonstrating a serious commitment to improving governance and transparency at finance companies and banks, with the RBI’s recent measures aimed at curtailing lenders’ overexuberance, enhancing compliance culture and safeguarding customers.

While the global ratings firm has appreciated the RBI’s “diminishing tolerance for non-compliance, customer complaints, data privacy, governance, know-your-customer (KYC), and anti-money laundering issues”, it has cautioned that increased regulatory risk could impede growth and raise the cost of capital for financial institutions. “Governance and transparency are key weaknesses for the Indian financial sector and weigh on our analysis. The RBI’s new measures are creating a more robust and transparent financial system,” says S&P Global Credit Analyst, Geeta Chugh. “India’s regulator has underscored its commitment to strengthening the financial sector. The drawback will be higher capital costs for institutions,” Chugh cautions.

The RBI measures include restraining IIFL Finance and JM Financial Products from disbursing gold loan and loans against shares respectively and asking Paytm Payments Bank (PPBL) to stop onboarding of new customers. Earlier in December 2020, the RBI suspended HDFC Bank from sourcing new credit card customers after repeated technological outages. These actions are a departure from the historically nominal financial penalties imposed for breaches, S&P Global notes.

Besides, as the global agency points out, the RBI has decided to publicly disclose the key issues that lead to suspensions or other strict actions against concerned entities and become more vocal in calling out conduct that it deems detrimental to the interests of customers and investors. “We believe that increased transparency will create additional pressure on the entire financial sector to enhance compliance and governance practices,” adds Chugh. The global agency has also lauded the RBI’s recent actions demonstrating scant tolerance for any potential window-dressing of accounts.

These actions include the provisioning requirement on alternative investment funds that lend to the same borrower as the bank finance company. Amidst the possibility of some retail loans, such as personal loans, loans against property, and gold loans getting diverted to invest in stock markets and difficulty of ascertaining the end-use of money in these products, S&P Global underlines the faith of market participants that the RBI and market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, want to protect small investors by scrutinizing these activities more cautiously.

On the flip side, at a time of tight liquidity, the RBI’s new measures are likely to limit credit growth in fiscal 2025 (year ending March 2025). “We expect loan growth to decline to 14 per cent in fiscal 2025 from 16 per cent in fiscal 2024, reflecting the cumulative impact of all these actions,” says Chugh. The other side of the story is that stricter rules may disrupt affected entities and increase caution among fintechs and other regulated entities and the RBI’s decision to raise risk weights on unsecured personal loans and credit cards may constrain growth. Household debt to GDP in India (excluding agriculture and small and midsize enterprises) increased to an estimated 24 per cent in March 2024 from 19 per cent in March 2019. Growth in unsecured loans has also been excessive and now forms close to 10 per cent of total banking sector loans.

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