GANAPATHI BHAT, AKOLA
India has the third highest undertrial population in Asia but the courts in the country are so overburdened that the undertrials have nothing to curse but their own luck for the long wait. A little more than 67 per cent of inmates in Indian jails are undertrials. Some undertrials’ waiting time in jails has exceeded the period of maximum years of imprisonment they would have undergone, if convicted. In the USA, 20 per cent of the prisoners are undertrials compared to the whopping 60 per cent in India. Denial of quick trials has resulted in overcrowding of prisons. Many past directions of the courts and the Home Ministry were not implemented in letter and spirit leading to chaos. The Supreme Court order to set free undertrials, who had served half their term in jails had the potential to be a game changer for the criminal justice system in India. The court, in 2014, had asked the district judges of the country to visit the undertrials in the district jails and assess the situation. “There are prisoners who cannot afford bail. There is nobody to take care of them” were the poignant words coming from a three-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice R M Lodha. The apex court’s order should have considerably reduced the overflowing prisons and provided quality of life to lakhs of undertrials languishing in prisons without an early hearing. However, was the order of the highest court implemented in letter and spirit? Looking at things, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. The failure to comply with the Union Home Ministry’s guidelines of 2005 on undertrial detention led to accumulation of undertrials in jails. Though Section 436 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) was amended long back to incorporate 436-A, which provided for the release of undertrials, who had served half the term of their maximum sentence, on personal bond with or without sureties, undertrials continued to suffer for no fault of theirs. Lack of legal knowledge, and little legal assistance from the government compounded their misery.