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Barred from life

It is shocking enough that India has one of the highest number of custodial deaths, a euphemism for custodial killings, among democracies in the world.

india Updated: Jun 15, 2007 02:02 IST

It is shocking enough that India has one of the highest number of custodial deaths, a euphemism for custodial killings, among democracies in the world. With a magisterial inquiry ordered to investigate the death of six inmates of Tihar Central Jail between June 6 and 12 and that of a warden on June 12, we have stumbled upon another scandal: the torturous conditions prevailing in Indian prisons. It took a public interest litigation to force the Delhi High Court to order the state government and the jail authorities to explain the seven deaths. The inquiry, scheduled for completion by June 25, may open up a can of worms on the manner in which India treats its prisoners. The fact that the Tihar authorities have described the deaths as ‘natural’ tells a sorry story. The other fact that the judiciary has turned a blind eye to the thousands of undertrials languishing in prisons with no recourse to justice speaks of a more worrying lacuna in the legal system. People often spend more time in jail awaiting trial than they would have served for the offence committed.

People go to prison as punishment for breaking the law. Death in the process of serving a jail sentence is not part of the punitive measures the State should mete out to the guilty. As Asia’s largest prison, Tihar is India’s most high-profile jail. If Tihar, with its capacity of 6,250 inmates currently houses some 13,750 prisoners, the conditions in other prisons are likely to be dire. The latest deaths were caused by mindless apathy. Tankers supply water to Tihar every morning, but drinking water runs out by the evening. A ward for 40-50 prisoners in Jail No. 3 reportedly has only five to six fans. Many inmates are weakened by police torture and others suffer from a variety of ailments. Medical attention is scarce and when available often rudimentary. This is not surprising considering that there are some 90 doctors for the 13,750 inmates in Tihar — a downward spiral from the 100:7,000 doctor-prisoner ratio in 1995.

The seven who perished in the inhuman conditions of Tihar in the scorching Delhi summer heat are not mere statistics but were flesh-and-blood people, someone’s son, father or brother. They were Man Singh, Santosh, Vinod Kumar, Ajay, Harish Kumar, Kamaljit Singh Bedi and Amit Kumar. The judiciary should streamline its procedures so that no offender is incarcerated longer than his offence warrants. The prison is a correctional facility, not a place where the dictum, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,’ is a terrible truth for many.