People like us who earn a living in India’s financial markets often rely on cliches like “India has an independent judicial system which delivers a modicum of law & order in this vast country” to convince foreign investors to direct their monies towards India. This data oriented article in IndiaSpend should give all of us reason to reconsider our reliance on cliches regarding law & order in India. Nileena Suresh’s piece says, “Our analysis of data from the last 25 years, presented in PrisonWatch, a new comprehensive data portal, reveal patterns on prisoner demographics, duration of confinement and nature of crime involved. Over the past decade, Indian prisons have increasingly had more undertrial prisoners, with their share increasing from 66% of prisoners in 2012 to 76% in 2022, as revealed in the latest Prison Statistics India report released by the National Crime Records Bureau. While this figure rose each year, the greatest rise was seen in the pandemic year of 2020, when undertrial prisoner share rose from 69% to 76%.”

So why are 76% of people in India’s prisons undertrial? Why has this ratio jumped so sharply over the past decade? “A primary contributing factor to this trend is the indiscriminate arrests carried out by the police, often without proper consideration, as IndiaSpend reported in August 2022. Individuals belonging to marginalised communities are disproportionately impacted from these unwarranted detentions. Other factors such as limited access to legal assistance and difficulties in meeting bail conditions contribute to the heightened likelihood of underprivileged individuals spending time in prison without being convicted.”

And which are the states in India where one should worry the most about getting on the wrong side of the cops? “Delhi, Bihar, and Jammu & Kashmir report the highest proportions of undertrials in their prisons…

In Delhi, the share of undertrials in prison has been rising in the past decade, but the biggest jump was in 2020 when the share increased from 82% to over 90%…

In Bihar, the number of convicted individuals has declined since 2019, but the number of undertrials has nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021. Bihar also tops the charts for the highest influx of new inmates, surpassing Uttar Pradesh in total new admissions in 2022….larger states with over 1,000 undertrial prisoners, Tamil Nadu has the highest percentage of undertrial inmates from underprivileged castes. This is followed by Karnataka…”

Rather than pinning the blame on the legal system, IndiaSpend’s analysis suggests that the identities of those who are being held in prison whilst awaiting trial mirrors age old prejudices in Indian society: “A majority of the undertrials belong to oppressed caste groups including the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC), as IndiaSpend reported in December 2023. Caste prejudices and over-policing of certain communities are important social factors behind the significant presence of marginalised caste groups in jails, experts told IndiaSpend. When exacerbated by poverty, the high cost of litigation, and the poor quality of free legal aid, the result is that social inequities in society get replicated inside of prisons….

Limited access to education also limits access to legal aid. In the north eastern states of Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland and Assam, over 80% of undertrial inmates have not completed school education. In West Bengal, over three-quarters of the undertrial inmates have not completed 10th education.”

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