A look at the available technology shows no method is foolproof
Even as the trial of the persons accused in the Delhi gangrape case of December 16 is about to begin, there is still uncertainty over the age of one the accused. The Juvenile Justice Board has said he is a minor on the basis of his school records and that he should be dealt with under the Juvenile Justice Act which carries a light punishment. But his mother reportedly does not remember his exact date of birth. In such a situation, will the police be able to establish his exact age to decide whether he should be tried along with the other accused under the Indian Penal Code?
There are a few scientific methods to ascertain the age of people. These include X-rays of wrist bones and teeth. However, these cannot determine the exact age of a person. This is because people grow at different rates and sometimes children can have the physical growth of an adult.
Why bone X-rays can prove wrong
As a result, the tests can predict the correct age only in a third of the cases. Head of Orthopaedics department at St Stephens Hospital in Delhi, Mathew Varghese, said that X-ray of bones is the reasonable way to ascertain the age of person. However, it is not a foolproof method, he said. Similarly, a paper prepared under the supervision and guidance of UNICEF’s Child Protection Section located in New York, published in April, 2011, mentioned that there is always a possibility of being wrong, if one follows these methods to ascertain age. The paper dealt with the issues related to ascertaining age of a juvenile.
The assessment of bone age is most commonly based on X-rays of the hands and wrists. Assesment of bone age can also be made through sonography of the hip and X-ray of shoulder area. Another way to check the bone age is the X-ray of the pelvic girdle. The dental age can be ascertained either by examination or by X-ray. Dental maturity, expressed as dental age, is an indicator of the biological maturity of growing children. All these facts have been mentioned in the UNICEF paper.
However, these methods of ascertaining age attempt to assess age with X-ray scans of teeth or wrists are bound to fail. The paper published by UNICEF and another article published in the British Medical Bulletin in May, 2012, authored by Tim Cole, came to the same conclusion. Cole emphasised that the fundamental flaws with such tests is that, because children grow at widely different rates, skeletal maturity shown in X-rays –which is used to gauge age—doesn't necessarily match chronological age.
But absence of a sure shot method is not the only hurdle. There are no standards available in the country to tally the results, said Varghese while adding that Indian medical practitioners follow the international standard named Greulich and Pyle chart. These would not work in India, where growth rates and rates of development would be different from global standards.
These standards need to be set speifically for different populations. For example, researchers have identified some standards which would allow the use of medial clavicle to determine the age in Serbia. The morphological, radiological, and histological analyses of medial clavicles was used to determine age in a Balkan population. The specimens were collected from autopsies in Serbia between 1998 and 2001. A variety of age distinctive features were identified which the researchers hope would help in determining age in the Serbian population. The findings are published in the International Journal of Legal Medicine in January.
In the absence of a reliable method to determine age, experts suggest that a combination of tests, which include psychological tests, should be adopted. The UNICEF paper says that only half of the children under the age of five years in the developing world have their births registered. In sub- Saharan Africa, 64 per cent of the total births go unregistered and in South Asia the percentage is even higher at 65 per cent.