A 110-year-old prisoner died in Jharkhand jail in January, putting a question mark on the fate of at least 70 critically-ill and paralysed life convicts who are languishing in state jails for want of pardon from the governor.
Under Article 161 of the Indian Constitution, the jail authorities or a convict's kin can directly make a plea for pardon and release to the governor. However, the jail's legal cell hardly exercises the option even in the case of illiterate and unaware life convicts.
This came to light when arguably India's oldest life convict breathed his last at Birsa Munda Central Jail (BMCJ) hospital this January. Baburam Mahto, a 110-year-old, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his nephew over a land dispute on July 18, 1990. He died of illness within the jail as neither the State Sentence Review Board (SSRB) considered his case for pardon nor was it forwarded directly to the governor by the jail legal cell.
Mahato is not the lone case. A high court's fact finding report released in April 2013 lists as many 70 such cases in Jharkhand. Five of them relate to women inmates who are suffering from irrecoverable diseases and are either bed-ridden in jail hospitals or languishing in ill-kept cells across four state jails - Birsa Munda Central Jail in Ranchi, Ghaghidih Central Jail in Jamshedpur, Jaiprakash Narain Central Jail in Hazaribag, Palamu Central Jail and Dumka Central Jail.
However, the report lists six cases of ageing and paralysed convicts prominently. They are Bijla Tigga, 52, Sita Ram Munda, 66, Surja Oraon, 63, Saluka Purti, 45, and Budhu Oraon, 76. All these life convicts are suffering from paralysis but their cases haven't been considered for remission and pardon. They are still lodged in Birsa Munda Central Jail. Parwesh Singh, who has lost both legs and Anlebh Singh, a polio patient, are lodged in Palamu Central Jail hospital, without any hope of pardon. Will they breathe their last like Munda, question advocates engaged in welfare of jail inmates.
Additional inspector general (prisons) Deepak Vidyarthy admits that the Article 161, which empowers the Governor to grant pardon to a convict, is a big tool for poor prisoners. But, unfortunately, neither the jail authorities nor the NGOs help poor inmates avail themselves of this privilege.
Vidyarthi also talks about the two parallel systems prevalent in the jails to deal with pardon and remission pleas.
The first one involves routing the pleas through the State Sentence Review Board (SSRB) after a convict has completed the minimum jail term of 14 years. And the second is, forwarding their case directly to the Governor to plead pardon. "This is a vast power under which one can seek pardon even if one's appeal petition is pending in higher courts," says former advocate general Anil Kumar Sinha. Member-secretary of the Jharkhand State Legal Services Authority (JHALSA) SK Dubey says, "The jail legal cell should find out such cases and move applications before the Governor on behalf of the prisoner".