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Reforming India’s broken criminal justice system | Opinion

India’s politicians seem to prefer a system they can manipulate. But if there is a will to reform, here is a way.

analysis Updated: Nov 12, 2019 18:16 IST
Vipul Mudgal
Vipul Mudgal
India cannot become a superpower on the back of an antiquated criminal justice system
India cannot become a superpower on the back of an antiquated criminal justice system(HT FILE PHOTO)
         

Why does social policy need objective indicators? Why measure failures and successes of policies or institutions like the police or the courts? Well, what is measured has a better chance of getting done. This debate was recently revived after the Nobel Prize was conferred on economists Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer for their evidence-based trials for poverty mitigation.

The trio has been successful in translating field-based evidence into actionable public policy insights. But what if optimum data-based indicators fail to influence policy? Clearly, objective data is essential but data per se does not automatically lead to improved policies. That is precisely what is happening to a mountain of data we have collected about India’s criminal justice system. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has been doing so since 1986. Similarly, since 1978, successive law commissions have used empirical evidence to give concrete recommendations but judicial pendency, delays and backlogs have only worsened.

One explanation is that our political class prefers a criminal justice system which they can manipulate. A shocking 43% of current parliamentarians are facing criminal charges, up by 26% since 2014. The situation is worse in many assemblies. True, the police can be ruthless in their handling of people and situations, but they happen to be the favourite scapegoats, even punching bags, when things go wrong. Politicians in power are blasé about using the system to frame their opponents or to exonerate thugs among party cadres. No wonder, state after state, and party after political party, has wilfully violated the Supreme Court guidelines for police reforms in the landmark Prakash Singh judgment of 2006.

But what about objective data on the criminal justice system, its infrastructure, diversity, capacity or under-utilisation of budgets? It seems the evidence and policies have managed to work at cross-purposes. Without exception, the prisons are overcrowded, the judicial system is overloaded and the constitutional right of legal aid is a distant dream. The nation should be worried as reforms could be moving in the opposite direction.

To an extent, this has been a failure of India’s advocacy groups, its influential legal community, media, and peoples’ movements. The judiciary has issued occasional guidelines, but has avoided demanding action on the ground or punishing deliberate defaulters, whose lists have been submitted to the courts. Also missing, sadly, is the pressure from below, like a groundswell of voter sentiment which the parties would ignore at their own peril. Somehow, the reality has to sink in that India cannot become a prosperous and economic superpower on the back of an antiquated criminal justice system.

The India Justice Report (IJR) is an attempt to join the dots between our expectations and ground realities. It is designed to reshuffle the same mountain of data that we have been collecting for decades to provide stimulus to all those policymakers, advocacy groups and other stakeholders who wish to pursue a people-centric justice system. A joint effort of many civil society groups, IJR provides incentives to those rare politicians who might like to bell the cat or score over rivals and competing states. The Opposition can use the same data as ammunition if they wish to arrest their state’s decline.

The report measures the performances of individual states according to their capacities to deliver justice and ranks them in a comparable, all India Index. It uses weights and balances to iron out systemic incongruities to make comparisons possible. As a result, the same government data becomes much more coherent, comparable and actionable for policymakers. The study concentrates on systemic wants rather than needs which, in any case, is the first step towards reforms.

For instance, it is known that no state has fulfilled its quota (33%) of women personnel but the report shows that instead of closing the gender gap, most states are showing nominal progress. Most states fail to meet the quotas for the SC, ST and OBCs, while working much below their sanctioned strengths. Unfortunately, the NCRB has ceased to report Muslim representation in the police forces since 2013, which was earlier in the range of 3% to 5% of the overall force, much below the proportion of their population.

So dismal is the state of their training or capacity building (only 6.4% of all policemen got any training) that we should be surprised if they show any success or sensitivity in solving crimes.

At the end of the report, editor Maja Daruwala, a veteran of justice system reforms, offers seven nudges. These include assessing the human resource gap and filling vacancies; ensuring representation of diverse, marginalised groups; increasing the availability of justice services in rural areas; ensuring budgets to every element of the justice system; having periodical reviews; improving transparency; and having regular empirical research for more informed policymaking. Together, these could help reform India’s broken criminal justice system.

Vipul Mudgal is director, Common Cause, a partner in India Justice Report
The views expressed are personal