Weeks after the nation gave a decisive mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), political analysts are yet to come up with plausible reasons for what happened. No one had forecast this kind of majority, though there are many who now claim they saw it coming.
Indian prisons make news when there is a jail break, a prison riot or when the lawyers of high-profile businessmen or economic evaders fight against their extradition to India. And in the midst of the election process this year, the release of the data-driven report, the Prison Statistics India 2016, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in April went largely unnoticed.
This edition of the report is different from its earlier versions on account of its omission of certain key demographic data. Despite these gaps, the report raises a number of red flags signalling the rot in India’s prison system. But before we go forward, a simple question needs to be asked. Who are our prisoners?
The report tells us that at the end of 2016, there were 4,33,033 people in prison; of them 68% were undertrials, or people who have yet to be found guilty of the crimes they are accused of. India’s under-trial population remains among the highest in the world and more than half of all undertrials were detained for less than six months in 2016. This suggests that the high proportion of undertrials in the overall prison population may be the result of unnecessary arrests and ineffective legal aid during remand hearings.
No demographic details
The most significant shortcoming of the report lies in the NCRB’s failure to include demographic details of religion and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe status of prisoners, which are crucial to understanding India’s prison population. This information was consistently published for the last 20 years and instrumental in revealing the problematic overrepresentation of Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis among under-trials in prisons.
The report of 2015, for instance, said that Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis accounted for 55% of the under-trial population even though they made up only 50% of the convict population and 38% of the total Indian population.
Another disturbing point is the rise in the number of people held under administrative (or ‘prevention’) detention laws in Jammu and Kashmir (a 300% increase), with 431 detainees in 2016, compared to 90 in 2015. Administrative, or ‘preventive’, detention is used by authorities in J&K and other States to unfairly detain persons without charge or trial and circumvent regular criminal justice procedures.
Data on prisoner release
But a new and important addition to the report is the number of prisoners eligible to be released and actually released, under Section 436A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows undertrials to be released on a personal bond if they have undergone half of the maximum term of imprisonment they would have faced if convicted. In 2016, out of 1,557 undertrials found eligible for release under Section 436A, only 929 were released. Research by Amnesty India has found that prison officials are frequently unaware of this section and unwilling to apply it.
In 2017, the Law Commission of India had recommended that undertrials who have completed a third of their maximum sentence for offences attracting up to seven years of imprisonment be released on bail. Perhaps the NCRB should consider including the number of such undertrials in its upcoming report for informing the policy on the use of undertrial detention.
The 2016 prison statistics do not mention the number of prison visits by official and nonofficial visitors which typically include district magistrates and judges, social workers and researchers. This number, while not as disaggregated as it should be, must nevertheless be used to provide some information on independent monitoring of prisons. This is essential to uncover torture and other forms of ill-treatment, increase transparency and balance the power asymmetry in prisons.
Mental health concerns
The relevance of prison visits is underlined by the number of “unnatural” deaths in prisons, which doubled between 2015 and 2016, from 115 to 231. The rate of suicide among prisoners also increased by 28%, from 77 suicides in 2015 to 102 in 2016. For context, the National Human Rights Commission in 2014 had stated that on average, a person is one-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide in prison than outside, which is an indicator perhaps of the magnitude of mental health concerns within prisons.
The NCRB has said that about 6,013 individuals with mental illness were in jail in 2016. It does not provide information on whether these prisoners were diagnosed with mental illness before entering prison, making it difficult to determine whether prison conditions worsened their plight.
The report states that there was only one mental health professional for every 21,650 prisoners in 2016, with only six States and one Union Territory having psychologists/psychiatrists.
Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the three States with the most prisoners with mental illness, did not have a single psychologist or psychiatrist.
All things considered, the report has important information which can be used to facilitate a dialogue on improving prison policies. But these conversations will be limited and the public’s right to know about the functioning of the criminal justice system thwarted if critical information is delayed inordinately or withheld without credible reason. The NCRB’s apparent reluctance to be prompt and open about its prison statistics does not bode well for the democratic discourse in India.
In Jharkhand, another instance of mob mentality combining with a communal motive
The death of a 24-year-old man in Jharkhand days after he was brutally beaten by a mob is a sordid reminder that the disturbing phenomenon of lynching is not going away any time soon. The assault on Tabrez Ansari also followed a recognisable pattern. The victim was Muslim and came under the suspicion of a mob, which chose to mete out vigilante justice, and someone in the crowd recorded trophy footage. This one was not motivated by cow vigilantism or suspicion of transporting cattle for slaughter or possessing beef. Yet, the communal angle was on display, with the crowd forcing him to shout ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Jai Hanuman’, confirming that vigilante justice and mob lynch mentality are invariably accompanied by a sectarian motive in the present context. Following a public outcry, some of the villagers allegedly involved were arrested on suspicion of murder. However, the conduct of the police typifies the official apathy and tacit acceptance of mob justice as a way of life in some parts of the country. Ansari was tied to a tree and beaten for hours before they came to his aid. They merely took him into custody based on a complaint of theft, and neither recorded his injuries nor mentioned in the FIR that he was assaulted. It was only after his condition worsened in jail that he was taken to hospital, where he died.
It is distressing that lynching, as a consequence of vigilantism, communal bigotry and the dissemination of hate messages and rumours on social media, has acquired the status of a preponderant social trend. The Supreme Court noted this when it observed in a judgment last year that “rising intolerance and growing polarisation expressed through [a] spate of incidents of mob violence cannot be permitted to become the normal way of life or the normal state of law and order”. It directed States to take specific preventive, punitive and remedial measures. It mooted a special law to deal with lynching and the appointment of a nodal officer in each district to combat the threat. While these measures are not yet in place, the latest incident must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to book. However, the larger issue has to be faced squarely by the political leadership. Organised vigilantism by cow protection groups was initially behind a wave of lynchings; rumour-mongering through social media platforms came next. The Ansari incident shows that the problem has transmogrified into a sinister form of enforcing the chanting of Hindu slogans by citizens professing other religions. It may well be that the unseemly political use of the religious chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Parliament by some ruling party members to heckle those in the Opposition ranks is finding its echo on the streets.
A city gone dry
The water crisis in Chennai needs holistic and widely resonant solutions
Chennai’s aspirations to grow into a global economic hub appear considerably weakened as it struggles to find water. The shadow of drought from 2018 has stretched into the torrid summer this year, evaporating not just the city’s reservoirs, but the prosperity of its residents who are forced to hunt for tankers, pay bribes and spend hours even at night waiting for trucks to dispense some water. Ironically, Tamil Nadu’s capital, which in a normal year gets anything between 1,300 mm and 1,400 mm of rainfall, has been laid low by the indifference of successive governments. That residents are now given minimum piped water and meagre tanker supplies totalling a third of the installed capacity of 1,494 million litres a day, that too mainly from desalination plants, faraway lakes and farm wells, is proof of the neglect of water governance. Yet, even searching questions posed by the Madras High Court to the AIADMK government have elicited only vague assurances on meeting basic requirements and restoring 210 waterbodies to augment future storage, rather than a firm timeline. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami was wrong to dismiss reports on water scarcity as “an exaggeration”, and he must end this business-as-usual approach. A time-bound plan is needed to augment the resources in the Greater Chennai region encompassing the neighbouring districts of Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram. This plan should be tasked to a Special Officer, to be framed by officials in consultation with credentialed experts in research and academia, and public comments invited before it is finalised.
Given the large base of tanks and reservoirs in Greater Chennai — over 4,000 waterbodies of significance — prudent rainfall management can help it through withering summers and weak monsoons. A white paper with a full assessment of these wetlands and their storage potential should be a priority for the State’s Sustainable Water Security Mission. Deepening storage in the four major reservoirs must get priority. Such a project must quantify the increase in storage and set an early deadline of a year. These measures can harvest the bulk of the rain in a good year, and prove superior to the fire-fighting approach of installing expensive desalination plants and bringing small quantities by rail from another district. Tamil Nadu made rainwater harvesting mandatory quite early, but failed to follow it up with an institutional mechanism to help citizens implement it. The government should give monetary incentives to NGOs, as NITI Aayog proposed in its Water Index report, to encourage them to install systems and show quantifiable recharge outcomes. On the consumer side, devices and practices to reduce wastage should be promoted, especially on commercial premises. Droughts are bottlenecks for profit, and several actors have developed a vested interest in transferring water to the city at high cost. Long-term solutions can end this cycle.
A committee formed by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), headed by former SEBI Chairman U.K. Sinha, has recommended a â‚¹5,000 crore distressed asset fund for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
The fund will assist units in a cluster where there is a change in the external environment such as plastic ban, which had resulted in large number of such entities becoming non-performing. “This would be of significant size which makes equity investments that help unlock debt or help revive sick units. It is a variation of venture capital fund , meant for equity investment of â‚¹1 lakh to â‚¹10 lakh in proprietary or partnership MSMEs, which will not or cannot list on the stock exchanges,” the committee, which submitted its report to the RBI few days back, said.
“The structure would recognize that exits will not be big bang but through a percentage of revenues or profits over a period of 3-5 years. The onus of creating this fund would lie with the government,” it said.
The panel also suggested that the RBI should increase the limit for non-collateralised loans to â‚¹20 lakh, and this would address a significant proportion of the sector needs. In addition, it also suggested revision in loan limit sanctioned under MUDRA by the Finance Ministry to â‚¹20 lakh from â‚¹10 lakh.
The committee has also recommended banks that wish to specialize in MSME lending, their sub-targets for farm loans under the priority sector lender could be waived off, and instead can be given a target for loans to the SME sector. The targets, committee said, could be of 50% of he net bank credit for universal banks and 80% for small finance banks.
At present, the overall priority sector lending target for a universal bank is 40% of their net bank credit and 75% for small finance bank.
Commercial banks have been suggested that they should develop customized products to assess the financing requirements based on expected cash flows moving away from traditional forms of assessment.
“Banks need to build their ability to capture cash flows of MSME borrowers on a regular basis, for which tie-ups with industry majors / aggregators / online platforms will have to be done by the banks,” the report said. In order to provide loan portability in a seamless manner to MSMEs, the committee recommended that the RBI should come out with measures on portability of MSME loans with a lock-in-period of one year. Sinha-led panel proposes â‚¹5,000 crore stressed asset fund for MSMEs The fund will assist units becoming sick due to changes in external factors
Disability pension will now be taxed
Disability pension for military personnel who retired normally from service and not invalidated will now be taxed, according to a notification issued by the Finance Ministry.
In the notification dated June 24, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) said that “such tax exemption will be available only to armed forces personnel who have been invalidated from service on account of bodily disability attributable to or aggravated by such service and not to personnel who have been retired on superannuation or otherwise.”
Disability pension are of two types, war and normal. War disability is 60% of the last salary drawn in case of 100% disability and normal disability is 30% of the last salary drawn in case of 100% disability. It goes down proportionally for lower percentage of disability.
The move has come under criticism from the military fraternity. As per procedure, the CBDT will now issue a circular to all the banks for implementation as they are the ones that disburse the pensions.