Indian men watch as a woman protests outside the court where the accused in a gang rape of a 23-year-old woman are to be tried, in New Delhi.

New Delhi - An Indian panel set up after a student was fatally gang-raped on a bus recommended on Wednesday new, tougher penalties for sexual crimes but stopped short of calling for the death sentence.

Commission member Gopal Subramanium said all gang rapes should be punishable by life imprisonment that “should mean the rest of the person's life”. The penal code currently stipulates gang rapists face a minimum 10 years to a life term.

The panel was established following the brutal attack on the 23-year-old student in mid-December that sparked violent street protests over the lack of safety for women and impassioned calls for harsher laws to punish rapists.

The panel said its main focus had been to prevent widespread sexual crime in India rather than just to prescribe punishments.

“We need a correction of the societal mindsets. Deficiencies can be overcome by our leaders, the judiciary and the police,” panel head and former chief justice of India J.S. Verma said.

The panel urged stronger punishment for trafficking of women and children and crimes such as groping, stalking, unsolicited sexual contact and voyeurism.

“If a public servant is involved in trafficking of minors, then the punishment of public servant shall be imprisonment for life, which will mean for the rest of their natural life,” Verma said.

Verma added that local communities should name special magistrates to deal with “street romeos” who harass women.

Though sexual harassment is commonplace in India, the student's gang rape has touched a public nerve, sparking an outpouring of criticism about the systemic mistreatment of women in Indian society.

The woman, who was also assaulted with an iron rod, died of massive internal injuries 13 days after the December 16 attack, prompting widespread public demands for India to introduce the death penalty for rapists.

“We did not recommend the death penalty because we received overwhelming suggestions against it,” including from women's groups, said Verma.

Verma rejected calls for lowering the maximum age for juvenile offenders to 16 from 18, saying it would not help prevent crimes. Two of the six suspects in the assault say they are under 18 and should be tried under juvenile law which provides for a maximum punishment of three years for any offence.

Media reports said India's ruling Congress party had suggested the death penalty for rapists in exceptional cases, while “chemical castration” - using drugs to reduce sex drives - had also been proposed.

The panel received some 80 000 suggestions from India and abroad on tackling sex crimes as well as improving the rights of women.

“We went over the entire gamut of laws to ensure gender justice. We focused on measures needed for prevention rather than just the cure,” said Verma.

He attributed widespread abuse of women to government, police and public apathy over the problem and questioned the seriousness of public authorities to bring about improvements.

He said there had been a “shocking” lack of contributions to the panel's deliberations from the police who had been widely accused of inaction following the attack on a student.

Verma said the panel, appointed on December 24, had compiled its report swiftly in order for it to be considered by parliament in the upcoming session starting next month.

“A positive response from the government to our recommendations will be the real tribute to the memory of the gang-rape victim,” said Verma. - Sapa-AFP