The Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved its judgment on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), which alleged an increase in child marriages across the country and the failure to implement the relevant laws effectively.

The PIL was filed by the NGO Society for Enlightenment and Voluntary Action and the National Campaign Committee for eradication of Bonded Labor. Pertinently, on April 13, 2024, the Court had directed the Union government to engage with the state governments in order to apprise them of the compliance by the state with the appointment of child marriage prohibition officers under Section 16 of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006.

The Bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra heard arguments from the Counsel representing the petitioner and Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati, who appeared on behalf of the Centre, before reserving their verdict.

At the outset, the CJI asked the ASG what steps had been taken in accordance with the Court's previous order.

ASG Bhati submitted that they have placed on record all the data. "It has number of child marriages reported, the number of cases of child marriages prevented, and the number of cases of child marriage in which FIR was registered. This is all data for the last three years," the ASG submitted. She further contended that there are five states, i.e., Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Ladakh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, that have reported nil cases of child marriage. "So, the north-east does not seem to have this problem at all. At least those States," the ASG contended.

The ASG further contended that the numbers are high in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana.

On perusal of the data submitted by the Union, the CJI asked, "How many convictions?"

To this, the ASG responded, "There is no data for conviction. We can get it." She submitted that there has been a lot of improvement as per the decadal data. "From 2006-2007, there was a 50% reduction in 2019-2020.

The CJI asked the Union, "Registration of FIR is one aspect. But at the social level, what can be done to stop child marriages?"

ASG Bhati submitted that the States have taken a multi-pronged approach. "The efforts have been awareness, training, and capacity building, at one step, then, incentivising," she added.

To this, the CJI said that these programs and lectures don't really change things on the ground.

ASG Bhati referred to government schemes/programmes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samridhi Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Mission Poshan 2.0, Swachh Vidyalaya Mission, etc. and contended, "These are the areas where we are focusing on....they (young girls) are in the principle role of caregiving. If their role can be freed up from caregiving to some productive activities, that is where the wholesome change will happen."

The Counsel for Petitioner NGO highlighted that there is no data about how many prosecutions lead to convictions or what has happened to these FIRs. "We don't know the end result of these FIRs at all...We should at least know where these prosecutions are leading," she submitted. The Counsel contended that there are a few states that are severely plagued by this problem. She argued that the numbers are "sky-rocketing."

"Prevention should also lead to some kind of prosecution, because then you are holding the people who are engaging in this," the counsel argued. She further argued that all the government schemes are putting onus on the girl child, and unfortunately, this is not what is perpetrated by the girl or the boy. She submitted, "There are 17.1% boys also who are forced into child marriage at this point, so 23.3% girls and 17.1% boys. The entire onus is on girls, to educate them, empower them, and give them water, but they do not address the issue because they are very socially engraved problems; these are being systematically done in these areas; this is not something happening on account of the girl child; it is happening to them".

Taking note of the submissions, the Court termed it as a "very important issue" and said, "We will reserve judgment. We will request, you (NGO) to give us some concrete suggestions at a social level because its obviously not just a question of prosecution in child marriages, but something much more. What can the court do? What can we do as part of our remit to give some guidelines to the governments. We would like you to formulate your thoughts. We will give you enough time to you and to Ms. Bhati."

The Court directed the Union and the NGO to give their written notes of submission by next Friday, i.e. July 19. Accordingly, the Court reserved the verdict in the PIL.

It is to be noted that the Court, vide order dated April 13, 2024, had directed the Union government in the Ministry of Women and Child Development to file an updated status report specifically elucidating:

(i) The data collected from various States bearing on the nature and extent of child marriages;

(ii) Steps taken to implement the provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 20061; and

(iii) The policies formulated by the Union government to effectuate the purpose.

Cause Title: Society for Enlightenment and Voluntary Action and Anr. v. UOI and Ors. [WP(C) No. 1234/2017]