In­dia’s long wait for jus­tice

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Vidhi Doshi

ASHISH Ku­mar last saw his brother Vinod when he was be­ing driven away by a se­nior po­lice of­fi­cer in Lud­hi­ana, in north­ern In­dia. Vinod’s body was never found but the CBI, In­dia’s in­tel­li­gence agency be­lieves that the of­fi­cer, Sumedh Singh Saini, was re­spon­si­ble for his death. They filed mur­der charges against him within a month. That was in 1994. Twenty-two years have passed since the mur­der case be­gan. Only three of 36 wit­nesses have been heard so far. Four wit­nesses have al­ready died with­out be­ing pre­sented in court.

At 94 years old, Vinod’s mother Amar Kaur can’t hear or speak well. She doesn’t seem to un­der­stand much about life at present. But when she hears her son’s name, she yells at the top of her voice, “In­saaf!” “Jus­tice”. Kaur, who used to go to court in a stretcher, gave her tes­ti­mony in her son’s mur­der case when she was aged 86, 14 years af­ter he went miss­ing.

She asked the court sev­eral times to hear her state­ment sooner, fear­ing that she didn’t have long to live. When she was fi­nally heard, the judge had to step down from the podium and stand next to the wit­ness box to be able to hear her thin, fad­ing voice. But be­fore she could fin­ish, he de­cided to break for lunch. The next avail­able date for her to de­liver her state­ment was a month later.

In the time that has passed since Vinod dis­ap­peared, Saini has con­tin­ued in his role and was pro­moted to Direc­tor Gen­eral of Po­lice in Pun­jab. He still has charges hang­ing over him. Vinod’s fam­ily on the other hand, has had to leave their fam­ily home, give up their busi­ness, and move to Delhi. They claim to have been threat­ened on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions and moved in or­der to re­main safe and fol­low the case. Vinod’s mur­der case is not ex­cep­tional in In­dia.

More than 22 mil­lion cases are cur­rently pend­ing in In­dia’s district courts. 6 mil­lion of those have lasted longer than five years. An­other 4.5 mil­lion are wait­ing to be heard in the high courts and more than 60,000 in the Supreme Court, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cently avail­able gov­ern­ment data. These fig­ures are in­creas­ing ac­cord­ing to de­cen­nial re­ports.

Last week, Chief Jus­tice of In­dia’s supreme court, Ti­rath Singh Thakur broke down while ad­dress­ing the Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, blam­ing the gov­ern­ment for in­ac­tion over ju­di­cial delays, par­tic­u­larly for fail­ing to ap­point enough judges to deal with the huge back­log of pend­ing cases. In the gov­ern­ment’s bud­get for 2016, only 0.2% of the to­tal bud­get was given to the Law Min­istry, one of the lowest in the world. “There is a sys­tem­atic prob­lem with In­dia’s courts,” Vinod’s younger brother Ashish says. “And be­cause of it our fam­ily has suf­fered so much.”

The num­ber of cases, how­ever, is only a part of the prob­lem. Take a walk through any court build­ing in In­dia and you’ll see long queues of peo­ple wait­ing out­side court­rooms with­out any guar­an­tee of get­ting a com­plete hear­ing. In­dia has one of the world’s lowest judges to pop­u­la­tion ra­tios in the world, with only 13 judges per mil­lion peo­ple, com­pared to 50 in de­vel­oped na­tions. As a re­sult, judges hear scores of cases ev­ery day, which leads to a large num­ber of ad­journ­ments, mul­ti­ple judges pass­ing cases be­tween them, and in­creas­ingly long queues of peo­ple wait­ing out­side court­rooms on the off chance that their case is heard. Judges are paid lit­tle com­pared to lawyers, which has led to a steady de­cline in the qual­ity of judges.

“This coun­try’s progress de­pends on a strong ju­di­cial sys­tem which can pro­vide quick jus­tice in com­mer­cial mat­ters,” says Dushyant Dave, a se­nior ad­vo­cate in the Supreme Court, who has seen the ju­di­cial sys­tem de­te­ri­o­rate since he be­gan prac­tic­ing in 1978. “We need for­eign in­vest­ment to im­prove tech­nol­ogy and cap­i­tal. If we’re not able to pro­tect tech­nol­ogy in terms of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights, and if we’re go­ing to drag in­vestors into our court sys­tem for sev­eral decades, then they’re not go­ing to come. “We have more than 700 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in poverty, and this is the great­est chal­lenge of our democ­racy. The ju­di­ciary has a great role to play. Un­for­tu­nately I don’t think the ju­di­ciary re­ally re­alises that.”

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