There are people stuck in jail for years because they cannot even afford the paltry bail amounts. Ketan Tanna reports
Every locked-up man knows that freedom has a price. Itâ€™s something called bail. Though these sums may be just a few hundred rupees for petty crimes, there is a growing number of men and women who cannot afford even that. And live in the confines of a prison for years.
Like the case of this dark and short woman who was caught begging at Mumbai’s Santacruz railway station with a fair baby. A dogooder woman commuter who saw them together was convinced that the baby was not hers and approached the police. They picked her up for questioning, but made little headway as the woman could only speak Tamil. When social workers who knew the tongue were summoned, she insisted that the baby was hers and requested to be sent back to Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. Of course nobody heeded to her shrieks and she was promptly charged with kidnap and begging. A bail amount was set at Rs 3,000 but she could not find that much money.
After languishing for six months in the Byculla Jail, a DNA test proved that she was indeed the mother of the curiously fair baby. The police decided to drop the charge of kidnap but insisted on prosecuting her for using the baby to beg. A social worker met the magistrate who after considerable time, thought and deliberation decided that she be sent to Nagapattinam. Finally the mother and the child, who was kept elsewhere, were reunited and they travelled to a Tsunami-ravaged village near Nagapattinam.
A 29-year-old man, who ran a Chinese food stall in Thane, has already spent 22 months behind bars. His landlords had accused him of grabbing property and threatening them. The man was granted a bail of Rs 10,000.
He did not have the resources to pay nor did he want his family in Rajasthan to know that he was in jail. While the poor undertrials of Mumbai and Maharashtra know that freedom has a price, not many are aware that it can also be bought. At the Metropolitan Court near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, if one does not have money for bail or wants a surety, all one needs to do is wear a hangdog expression.
Fairy godmothers in the guise of touts will pop out of nowhere and fake a surety. An old lady tout, dressed in a cheap colourful flowery polyester saree, offered to give a surety worth Rs 10,000 for double the amount. â€œEverybody knows me here. Everybody,â€ she emphasises and calls out to advocates, plainclothes policeman, hotel owner, canteen boys and passerby to make her point. All respond and some even discuss cases with her. â€œGive me Rs 20,000 and your surety will be ready by 10 AM. Donâ€™t worry. I know the persons here. See that person? He is a magistrate’s driver,â€ she points out. Now what a driver can possibly do, is anybody’s guess. â€œDo not worry. We have connections,â€ says Kamu Maa, better known as Amma. But Amma has a competitor. A meek-looking bespectacled person who too provides surety but only if one can produce a ration card and a proof of land ownership. Without the proof, â€œyou have to pay double the surety,â€ he says.
The two almost came to blows over clients with both accusing each other of fleecing ghiraks (costumers). As of October 2005, Maharashtra had 25,526 prisoners, out which 16,371 were undertrials â€” 15,547 males and 824 females. Mumbai, on the other hand, has 3,702 prisoners, out of which 3,492 are undertrials (3,140 males and 352 females).
Jails are stuffed to capacity and bails routinely delayed. In 2004, Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Dhananjay Chandrachud of the Bombay High Court had expressed shock that more than 100 undertrials had spent more than 50% of their maximum possible sentence of seven-year imprisonment behind bars. Rules for procuring bail were subsequently changed. Undertrials, liable to be punished for up to three years and unable to avail of bail, could now be released on personal bond.
And for those liable for up to seven-year punishment, personal bonds would be accepted a year after the bail order.
Video-conferencing for convicts was implemented as there were not enough police escorts. They present themselves to the judges within the jail premise itself. But so far, only Arthur Road, Byculla and Thane jails have the facility.
The first floor of Mumbaiâ€™s Metropolitan Court has spanking new video-conferencing rooms. After the judge leaves, a bored-looking clerk and two others entertain themselves by punning on names like Narayan, Sandeep Kale and Abdul Ajeeb Ansari.
Has video-conferencing made a difference? â€œIt may have reduced judgesâ€™ workload but has not speeded trials,â€ says an activist.
Concerned lawyers argue that presence of the accused at the trial is vital as it offers an opportunity for the defendant to complain about ill-treatment or make bail petitions, or ask for edical tests and legal counsel. Something that video-conferencing doesnâ€™t provide. Now comes the real problem. Most undertrials do not know about their rights.