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Budget 2023: FM Nirmala Sitharaman’s comment on fiscal support for prisoners sees mixed response

Updated on: 02 February,2023 08:19 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Vinod Kumar Menon |

Rights activists, criminal advocates say focus on larger issues, on-ground implementation are vital

Budget 2023: FM Nirmala Sitharaman’s comment on fiscal support for prisoners sees mixed response

About 32 per cent of India’s 5 lakh-plus inmates belong to socio-economically weak sections. Representation pic

The Union finance minister's statement about providing financial support to prisoners unable to afford penalties and bail amounts and setting up a budgetary provision for eCourts has received a mixed response from human rights activists and criminal advocates. 

Over 4.32 crore criminal and civil cases are pending in courts across India, as per National Judicial Data Grid, and over 5,000 prisoners are behind bars after being released on bail, according to a National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) report submitted to the apex court on January 31.

Madhurima Dhanuka, programme head, Prison Reforms Programme Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi, said, “The Union Budget 2023-24 has allocated funds towards modernisation of prisons (Rs 250 crore), an inter-operable criminal justice system (Rs 590.6 crore), national legal aid services (Rs 200 crore) and phase III of the eCourts project (Rs 7,000 crore)."

The big picture

“Providing financial support to poor prisoners, while a welcome initiative, has its own set of concerns. The NALSA figure is a marginal one as compared to the 18 lakh prisoners that are admitted to prisons each year,” said Dhanuka.

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“A focus on larger issues such as promoting bail on personal bonds (which do not require sureties to be produced); expediting trials, considering that the period of detention of prisoners confined for 3 to 5 years, has nearly doubled from 2010 to 2021; and placing effective checks on arbitrary and unnecessary arrests is required. It's time that we look at the bigger picture, find the causation links for prison overcrowding and deteriorating prison conditions as well as answer these questions: what is the purpose of imprisonment, is there adequate focus on rehabilitation and for how long should one be incarcerated pending conviction?” she added.

Compensation woes

Citing e-prison data from between July and October 2022, Valay Singh, project lead of India Justice Report (IJR), New Delhi, said that 391 out of the 1,314 jails in the country were severely overcrowded, having occupancy of 150 per cent or more. “Most of these inmates are undertrials, many of whom are unable to post bail sureties. Roughly 32 per cent of the more than 5 lakh inmates across India belong to socio-economically weak SC and ST sections. Other factors are lack of effective representation, unwarranted arrests and reluctance to use alternate remedies. The state does not offer compensation for long unjustified incarceration nor hold the system's actors to account,” he added.

Decongest prisons

Singh said the proposed bail fund idea needs to be urgently implemented across states. "This will help decongest prisons and ensure undertrials do not languish for want of bail sureties. We also need to improve our data culture immensely so we can design the right interventions,” he stated.

He added that phase III of the eCourts project must also ensure that funds are utilised in an effective and transparent manner.

The haves and have-nots

Advocate Dinesh Tiwari, who has been practising criminal law for over two decades, said, “A number of undertrials are languishing in jail because of lack of family support or are financially weak. They can be divided into two categories: the haves and have-nots. A large number of prisoners fall into the latter category. If this good intention is implemented on the ground and good officers extend support to all poor prisoners, it will be a boon."

Of eCourts, Advocate Tiwari said, “Unless the government and judiciary take out-of-the-box steps, it will be not possible to clear pending cases. We need to have the right mechanism to identify good judges and provide good infrastructure including artificial intelligence support.”

Implementation vital

Advocate Rajeshwar Panchal, who practises in the Bombay High Court, said, “It remains to be seen whether the decision is implemented in true spirit instead of being only on paper. Such a decision would help lakhs.”

He welcomed the eCourt system but raised concerns about whether litigants and lawyers from humble backgrounds have the required infrastructure and computer literacy.

“The system should be optional for time so that stakeholders learn with the passage of time. A mandatory eCourt system may result in denial of access to justice if litigants and lawyers from rural and interior districts don’t have the resources to use the system,” he said.

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