Undertrials exceed Convicts in Indian jails

Indian jails are packed with people who are still being tried for crimes they may or may not have committed. Many of them are in for petty crimes, often serving a longer jail term than they would have if they had actually been convicted. There are more undertrials in the jails than the convicts at present. In its last survey in 2002, the National Human Rights Commission found that 74 per cent of the prisoners in the country are undertrials.

The National Crime Records Bureau in 2003 has more conservative, but no less shocking, estimates of nearly 67 per cent undertrials.

Shocking tale

The story holds true all over India, even in modern states and cities like Mumbai where a right to information activist asked for details of how many are trapped as prisoners of the law.

Shailesh Gandhi, the activist, found that Maharashtra has twice the number of undertrials than convicts.

In just one of Maharashtra’s 38 prisons, Mumbai Central, as many as 26 undertrials have been there for over 10 years.

Across the state, 336 undertrials have already been in jail for over three years.

Damning factors

The culprit is not just legal delays. The situation becomes even more grim because of the indifference towards prisoners.

They are left in prison for years for minor glitches like case papers getting lost or eaten up by rodents. In other cases, there are no escorts to accompany them to court.

“There was a 23-year-old man who had been in jail for three years. First he was not produced in court when he should have. Then the judges were not available. Later there was no lawyer to speak for him. So nobody gave a damn and he remained in jail,” said Yug Mohit Chaudhry, a lawyer.

What is worse is that thousands of undertrials remain in jail because they’re uneducated and too poor to get lawyers or even pay bail.

“Most people are arrested for petty crimes like stealing a manhole cover. We had a case where a worker stole a vada pav Rs 2 because he hadn’t been paid. He was in jail for six months,” said Vijay Hiremath from the India Centre for Human Rights and Law.

“The problem often is the high bail amount. The rich can pay, but the poor have no choice. They can’t hire lawyers and even the most elementary legal aid. So they end up staying in jail even though there’s no evidence on record”.

It’s ironic that in a country where the powerful routinely get away with bail even in serious crimes, the poor languish in jails for years for petty stuff.

Tuesday, 20 June 2006,Priyanka Kakodkar, Imtiaz Jaleel, NDTV.COM