By Soutik Biswas and Amarnath Tewary
BBC News, Delhi and Patna, Thursday, 29 June 2006
Indian prisons are overcrowded (Pic: Prashant Ravi]
Jaldhar Yadav was arrested and put behind bars in the northern Indian state of Bihar for "wrongfully restraining a person and causing hurt" in the mid-1980s.
Under the Indian Penal Code, these offences can lead to a maximum sentence of one year in prison or a $45 fine or both.
But Yadav, now in his 70s, has been languishing on remand in the state for more than 20 years.
An amendment to existing prison laws, however, promises to come to his help.
Under the provision, inmates must be released if they have served time on remand equal to half the maximum prison tariff for the offence they are to be tried for.
The measure, which came into effect last weekend, does not apply to those charged with offences for which the death sentence is a possible punishment.
Authorities and human rights activists reckon that the law will help speed up justice and free up India's overcrowded prisons.
Jaldhar Yadav is not alone in his misery – 87% of prisoners in Bihar's prisons are on remand awaiting trial.
In the central prison in the town of Bhagalpur, where Yadav is being held, there are some 15 remand prisoners, all above 70 years of age.
Yadav's plight exemplifies the fate of seven out of 10 Indian prisoners – nearly 70% of 322,000 inmates in India's 1,135 prisons are awaiting trial.
This is higher than South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh (67%), Pakistan (66%) and Sri Lanka (49.3%).
India jails 31 people per 100,000 of population, compared with a figure of 145 per 100,000 in England and Wales. But only 17.3% of inmates in England and Wales are on remand.
Shortage of judges
Machang Lalung spend more than half a century in prison without trail
Human rights activists say there are many reasons behind the rising remand population – the police take months to file charges, lawyers delay filing cases, judges are absent leading to frequent adjournments and the accused are not produced in time.
Most of Bihar's 55 jails, for example, simply do not have enough prison vans to transport prisoners to the courts.
Trials also drag on because of a shortage of judges – India has only 10.5 judges per million people. Since 1987, the government has been talking about increasing the ratio to 50 judges per million, but it has not happened.
India's National Police Commission has said 60% of arrests are either unnecessary or unjustified as police see imprisonment as an easy solution to check spiralling crime.
According to one human rights group, the majority of court hearings are also ineffective.
There are 322,000 inmates in 1,135 prisons in India
India's prisons officially have capacity for 237,000
223,000 of inmates are on remand
A survey by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative which analysed 150 cases in a Delhi court found that 68% of the hearings were ineffective – either no proceedings were held or the purpose for holding the hearing was not served.
The absence of witnesses impeded another 15% of hearings, while the absence of the accused a further 10%.
No wonder then that India is rife with sorry tales of remand prisoners being released after wasting away their entire lives in jails.
In February, Jagjivan Ram Yadav, detained without trial for 38 years in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was freed on bail by the country's Supreme Court.
Yadav, arrested for allegedly killing a neighbour's wife in 1968, was never charged. Police admitted to losing the case records.
In January, 70-year-old Machang Lalung, a villager in north-eastern Assam state, was released from prison after spending more than half a century behind bars without trial.
Many prisoners suffer from serious diseases (Pic: Prashant Ravi]
Lalung was arrested in 1951 for "causing grievous hurt" – an offence which normally results in 10 years imprisonment.
It is difficult to predict how big an effect the new law might have on India's congested prisons.
The chief of prisons in the eastern state of West Bengal, BD Sharma, reckons that "five to 10% of the inmates" might be released.
"There are some grey areas which need to be checked – like most of the time, an accused has different cases under separate sections slapped on him.
"If you add all the potential sentences up, and then you hal
ve that, it may still be a long time before an under-trial can be released," he says.
But the new law is at least a glimmer of hope for people like Jaldhar Yadav, Charitra Mondal, Sheikh Samshul and Maksudan Sah – ageing prisoners who have spent over two decades in India's prisons without ever being convicted.