Political parties do not imbue the justice system with the necessary attention it deserves, choosing often instead to pay lip-service that simply cannot fix the underlying systemic malfunction.
Valay Singh and Niyati Singh
Over the last few weeks, various political parties have feverishly appealed to the masses on nationalistic, communal and economic grounds; they have handed out promises and sops to an electorate made up of myriad castes, classes and religions. Touted as the most polarised election in India’s contemporary history — parties have campaigned on a number of issues that are reflective of the prevailing national zeitgeist: Pakistan, ‘democracy in danger’, corruption, farm crisis, internal security, etc.
At the same time, the ills plaguing the formal justice system, despite being crucial to the functioning of our democracy, continue to remain unattended to. While perhaps not an attractive issue to the general public at large, the virtually broken state of our justice infrastructure should be a cause for alarm to all citizens, irrespective of political leaning, and socio-economic status.
The workings of the four pillars of India’s justice system i.e. judiciary, prison, police and legal aid, should not be thought of simply as being important to those who come in contact with these sub-systems, rather, we should widen our spheres of concern to include justice, as it is a public good that is essential to the fair delivery of every other public good.
- Across police, judiciary, and prisons, there is a perpetual high vacancy in essential positions. On average: 20% in police (2016-17), 30% in prisons (2015-16) and between 20-40% in judiciary (2016-17).
- Women are poorly represented. In police and prisons, their share in the workforce, across functions and hierarchies, ranges from 1% to 20% (2015-17).
- In 16 states across India, prisons held inmates above their sanctioned capacities, indicating overcrowding. Prisons in Chhattisgarh had an occupancy of 233.87% (2015-16).
- In 13 states, more than 20% of court cases have been going on for more than five years. This often translates into longer incarceration periods.
Party manifestos and justice
The BJP-led NDA government brought out its Sankalp Patrika (resolution document) which continues to make promises on temples, employment, and health among other issues.
Their commitment to reforming the justice system extends to increasing the “capacity of the legal system within five years in partnership/ co-ordination with the judiciary”. The above promise, while welcome, is made in the narrow spirit of ensuring that commercial disputes are resolved more quickly.
At first glance, the Congress’ much-publicised NYAY scheme, may mislead one into thinking it concerns itself with the justice system. However, while we cannot comment on the merits of the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) scheme for the poor, the manifesto does mention that the party will work with state governments to increase the strength of police forces — which includes the filling up of vacancies and equipping them.
Further, the manifesto also speaks of undertaking comprehensive prison reforms to ensure that “prisons are institutions of correction”, ensuring that prisoners enjoy human and legal rights. This would help challenge the notion of prisons being full of convicted felons, when in fact India has a large population of inmates that are still under trial and have not been convicted. The manifesto goes on to make mention of releasing remand and undertrial prisoners who have served a period of detention.
They have also promised to allocate sufficient funds to the judiciary, increase diversity and establish a National Judicial Commission, among other things. Perhaps most importantly, however, the party claims it would establish “by law, an independent Judicial Complaints Commission to investigate complaints of misconduct against judges”.
While the party’s own track record in improving accountability and undertaking reforms across the criminal justice system, which have been long overdue, is well known and criticised — it is encouraging that it finds mention, more so than in other party manifestos.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has limited its reforms of the criminal justice system to the constitution of a National Judicial Commission “to examine instances of commission/omission of judges and to ensure judicial accountability”, reforming the judicial system to provide speedy relief at an affordable cost and the filling up vacancies in the judiciary.
In states with worst performance on justice-indices such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar, key regional parties’ manifestos, instead of striving for systemic changes ('Law and Order' is on the Concurrent list) limit themselves to measures like fast track courts, women’s police system and the death penalty. In doing so, they simply pander to populist wishes. The Samajwadi Party, for example, makes a casual reference to ‘pending police reforms’ in its section on ‘Internal Security’ with no elaboration. The Trinamool Congress, in its promise on judicial reforms, proposed the setting up of fast track courts.
Numerous studies have identified the rule of law as a key factor affecting long-term economic growth and social stability; which also contributes to poverty reduction. For those political parties that have promised economic growth, development and sops to economically weaker sections, it would do to take note of the above.
Valay Singh is a freelance journalist and Niyati Singh is a researcher working on Access to Justice. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.