Categories: Opinion

Judicial backlog: Will Modi address Chief Justice’s concern?

29% of 20.2 million unresolved cases in subordinate courts are older than five or more years. Close to3,470 prisoners were…

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Two recent stories relating to India’s judicial system speak volumes about how badly India’s criminal justice system needs reform.

In the first story, it was unprecedented to see India’s Chief Justice T S Thakur almost weeping in full public view, in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a government led consultative meeting on April 24 in New Delhi.

Justice Thakur became emotional, lamenting on high load pending cases with an increasing number of under-trial prisoners and overflowing jails in the country.

The second story speaks about the fallout of what the Chief Justice lamented.

A court in Mumbai on April 25 dropped charges against eight Muslim men accused in the 2006 Malegaon blasts cases, in which 35 people had died.

The most shocking part of this second story is, by the time they were cleared of all charges by the local courts, they had already spent five years in jail.

Abysmal scenario

With an abysmal ratio of 15 judges per a million populations, judiciary’s present strength of 18,000 is finding it virtually impossible to dispose of case pendency of 30 million.

India’s prisons can accommodate a maximum of 3,56,561 people. However, Indian jails are facing serious challenges of overcrowding with the present number of all inmates reaching to 4,18,536 by the end of December 2015.

There are close to 33,887 children below the age of 18 put in different jails. The figure of children jail inmates has risen by about 142% between 2002 and 2015.

While the prison inmates’ number in the country has gone up by 33% since 2001, the total annual spending per inmate has also shot up by 243% over the same period. The food, medicine, clothing expenses per inmate have also increased by 84%.

The worrying point for government and judiciary is the rising number of undertrials, which is as high as 68% of all inmates in the country’s 1,387 jails.

As per the latest figures released by National Crime Records Bureau, over 40% of all the under trials remain in different prisons for more than six months before being released on bail bond.

Nearly 29% of 20.2 million unresolved cases in subordinate courts are older than five or more years. Close to3,470 prisoners were not released because they could not furnish bail bonds.

Slow justice system

This ratio reflects the reality of India’s slow justice system where the rich allegedly receive favoured treatment and quicker trials, whereas poor suffer unwarranted delays, deprivation and continue to stay in prisons for a longer period.

The composition of under trial prison population in the country is also found to be young as nearly 50% of under trails put in various prisons are under the age of 30. Over 70% of inmates have not completed schools.

People belong to Muslims, Scheduled Castes, and Schedule Tribes communities, constitute 53% of all prison population in the country.

At least 1,702 prisoners died in jails due to numerous reasons, of which 1,507 were reported as natural deaths.

The state spends Rs.51 (less than US$ 1) per inmate daily on food, clothing, and medicine. Moreover, prisoners also make some money during their stay.

In 2015, the sales proceeds from goods produced by prison inmates across India amounted to Rs.1.5 billion (US $ 224, 82,030), or Rs.3, 600 (US $50) per inmate annually (275% rise in this income from 2001).

However, resource constraint has made the issue more complicated. With the number of cases shooting up 12-fold in last three decades, India allocated only 0.11% of central budgets for judiciary system in 2014-15.

This meagre allocation of funds has affected the new appointment against the sanctioned post.

The current sanctioned strength of the district level judiciary is 20,214, while that of 24 high courts is sanctioned at 1,056.

On the sanctioned strength, there are more than 4,998 vacancies of judges in these courts which are more than 24% of the total strength.

The situation in the high court is found to be much worse with almost 44% (464) judges’ posts lying vacant as per the latest update. The Supreme Court too has six vacancies on a sanctioned strength of 31.

The recent controversy relating to the judiciary and government has further failed to address the existing vacancy in different courts in the country.

The appointments of 100 high court judges, recommended by the collegium, a new system led by India’s chief justice, has been put on hold following a difference of opinion between the central government and the collegium for the selection of judges.

(Sachi Satapathy is a New Delhi-based policy analyst and tweet at @SachiSatapathy)

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