INDIA: Failed justice mechanisms ensure most Indians do not benefit from economic development

More than 70% of the Indians are being left behind and ignored in India, while the government is lauding the country’s developed status. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has noted through its work that there was no improvement in the human rights standards in India during 2006, as compared with the economic growth that the country has achieved in the same period. The AHRC has received numerous cases of gross human rights violations from India during the year, which lead it to believe that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation compared with the previous year.

The primary institutions responsible for promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights include the courts and other elements of the justice delivery system, such as the police and the prosecution department. All three establishments and their performances during this year in safeguarding human rights in India remain at a dismal low. Delays in courts, the widespread use of torture, the lack of accountability of the police and the pitiful performance of the prosecution department, have literally alienated the poor in the country.

India’s union and state governments have taken no steps whatsoever to reduce the delays to cases in courts. The situation remains the same as it has been over the past decade; cases, under ordinary circumstances, take a minimum of ten years to be decided upon, even at the first instance. It is thought that several hundred thousand additional cases will have been added this year to the already lengthy list of those in courts, further increasing delays. This situation requires urgent attention, which has been acknowledged by numerous current judges. The pressure felt in the higher courts has led to disposal targets being set for the lower courts. The lower courts are under pressure to meet the disposal targets set up by the higher courts, such as the High Courts and the Supreme Court, causing the summary disposal of cases at the lower courts, which dismiss cases on technical defaults rather than as the result of the consideration of the cases’ merits. The infrastructure provided to these courts has not improved; in fact, it has even been reduced by the State.

In addition, the higher courts have now started shifting from a broader approach to a much narrower one concerning human rights. This is true particularly in the case of the right to adequate housing. Several mass-demolitions were executed by the government, with the seal of approval of the courts in 2006. The massive demolition of slums in Delhi, Bombay, Kolkata and elsewhere in India are sad reminders of a court system that is increasingly catering to the interests of the executive government. The demolitions were sanctioned by the courts in the name of development. Thousands of Indians who were already destined to live in appalling conditions, now find themselves facing real threats to their survival as a result of court orders.

Policing in India has also not shown any improvements during the year. The widespread use of custodial torture has been reported from various parts of India. The number of custodial deaths and deaths resulting from suspicious circumstances that have been reported from regions that are not normally associated with such violence by the police, like Kerala, has been on the rise. Cases received by the AHRC indicate that torture was being used as a central part of criminal investigations. Even though the prime minister declared early in the year that the country would soon be ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the AHRC doubts whether there has been any progress made regarding this. To date, custodial torture remains to be made a crime in India. There are no practical and reasonable avenues through which a victim of custodial violence can seek redress in India, other than via the expensive process of approaching the constitutional courts.

While law enforcement officers continue to enjoy impunity, the initiatives taken by the Supreme Court of India in its decision in the Prakash Singh & Others v. Union of India and Others case, are now effectively being sabotaged by the protracted implementation of the directives of the Court by the government. In its decision, the Court had observed that the government must take immediate measures to address complaints against police officers, and to put mechanisms in place to reduce the political influence being exerted on the policing system. The Court relied upon the reports of earlier commissions and the National Human Rights Commission to conclude that the government must immediately take appropriate steps to address the issues that reduce policing in India to a despicable state. December 31 has been set as the deadline by the Court for the government to implement the Court’s order. However, the government is still trying to file a revision against the judgment at present.

This attempt by the government to retain the unchallenged control of the police has also been reflected in the increase of deaths from starvation in India. Starvation deaths are precipitated by corrupt and unaccountable policing in India. The local police, instead of charging corrupt food distribution agents with crimes, are conniving with these agents, allowing them to sell the food that was intended to be distributed to the poor in the black market. The response by the government remains that of defiance and ignorance. The maximum number of starvations deaths were reported in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkant states during this year.

Courts and public prosecutors depend upon the local police in order to ensure the successful prosecution of a human rights violation case. The fear that the local police have injected into ordinary persons, through the widespread use of torture and violence, allied with the ineptitude of the public prosecutors¡¦ office to conduct a proper prosecution, and decades of delays in courts, have alienated such persons from the justice dispensation mechanisms in the country. Support mechanisms such as the human rights commissions also depend upon the local police to investigate cases of human rights violations. This dependency combined with the police’s poor image has negatively affected the trust that ordinary persons have concerning these mechanisms.

Discrimination based on caste is yet another issue that the government has failed to address. Caste-based discrimination continues unabated in India, particularly in societies that are still under feudal control. In theory, India is a democracy, however, in practice, rural villages in India, particularly those in the northern states and in Karnataka and Tamilnadu in the south, are still under the control of feudal lords. The Dalits and members of the lower castes face the main brunt of abuses related to this phenomenon. Instead of trying to prevent further atrocities committed against the lower castes, the government is unfortunately avoiding any discussion concerning such issues. The AHRC¡¦s sister organization, the ALRC, will soon be submitting an alternate report to the United Nations Committee against Racial Discrimination, to coincide with the examination of India’s country report by the Committee. The AHRC will also be releasing a detailed country report on India in the following days.

Experiences gained during 2006 reiterated that protection and promotion of human rights can only become a reality if the justice delivery mechanism in the country becomes trustworthy and reasonable. Reforms to the existing system must begin with the halting of the culture of impunity currently being enjoyed by members of the law enforcement agencies. There must also be positive and immediate steps taken to address long delays to court cases. If these two issues are ignored any further, the situation of the rule of law will further deteriorate in India and risk reaching a sate of collapse.

India now claims that the economic growth it has attained in recent years is an indicator of the improvement of rule of law in the country. If at all, this directly proportional relationship may only exist in countries where economic development benefits the majority of the population. In India, however, the benefits resulting from the current pace of economic growth are limited to a mere 20% of its population. Can a state be justified in referring to itself as being a democracy when more than 70% of its population is yet to experience the benefits of its economic growth? Can a government¡¦s actions be justified when it tries to undermine every attempt to improve its policing system? Can a country justify its failure to address discrimination based on caste, which is affecting a large section of its population? Only when the government takes steps to address these issues, will concepts like independence and development make any sense to the citizens of India.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-308-2006
Countries : India,