India’s cabinet has approved a bill that would allow some minors accused of “heinous” crimes to be tried as adults, the first step towards resolving a long-running debate highlighted by the fatal 2012 Delhi gang rape.

Many in India have demanded stricter punishment for minors aged 16-18 accused of crimes such as rape, murder, or acid attacks.

The issue came to the fore after the brutal attack on a student on a Delhi bus nearly three years ago in an incident that unleashed weeks of angry protests over India’s treatment of women.

One of the six men arrested for the student’s rape and murder was a 17-year-old juvenile. He was sentenced to the maximum three years detention.

The new bill, which would replace the existing Juvenile Justice Act, proposes a two-stage process that would first categorise crimes committed by juveniles as petty, serious or heinous.

A minor accused of committing a “heinous” crime would then be examined by a board of psychologists and social behaviour experts who would assess whether the defendant should be treated as a child or an adult.

“(The proposed legislation) brings about a balance that is sensitive to the rights of the child, protective of his legitimate interests and yet conscious of the need to deter crimes, especially brutal crimes against women,” a government statement said.

The bill considers “the increasing number of serious offences being committed by the persons in the age group of 16-18 years” and recognises “the rights of the victims as being equally important as the rights of the juveniles”, it said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the cabinet meeting that approved the introduction of the bill, the statement added.

The proposed legislation will have to pass through both houses of Indian parliament before it replaces the existing law.

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