The government estimates that undertrials make for 67% of its prison population. According to a report released by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2011, the number of undertrials in the country was 2,41,200. The fact that there are more undertrials than there are convicts suggests that the system is dragging its feet over the fate of many who may be innocent. There is merit in the advice that undertrials and convicts be kept separately. But the real issue here is judicial delays and with this often the miscarriage of justice. There were 66,569 cases still pending in the Supreme Court at the end of January 2013, and at the end of 2011, there were still 3.2 crore cases awaiting resolution in the higher and subordinate courts. Some like Machang Lalung waited for 54 years in a prison. Charged with physical assault when he was 23, the Assamese tribal was surprisingly never tried. In 2007, he was freed at the age of 77. He died in 2009, two years after his release. There was no recompense for a lifetime of wrongful captivity.
An advisory issued to states by the central government this month gives cause for some hope. Wanting to correct the systemic wrongs that see undertrials imprisoned for indefinite lengths of time, the Centre has asked states to release all such individuals, if and when they complete half the sentence their presumed offence demands. While rampant poverty and illiteracy among undertrials seem to have informed such a measure, the happenings at Dum Dum Central Jail cannot be allowed to slide. If West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee wants to put an end to the rot in the state's prisons, she could take a leaf out of UP's book where 71 undertrial prisoners are appearing for board examinations this year. She must understand that this sort of trial by error is hardly in the interest of the people who looked to her for a more humane form of governance.