Bengal and the question of justice
The recently released India Justice Report 2019, which provides a succinct analysis of government data across the four pillars of justice — judiciary, police, prisons and legal aid — ranks West Bengal at 12th position among 18 large states surveyed, with Maharashtra occupying first position. Bengal, apart from being ranked fourth for prisons, has not fared as well across the other pillars. It finds place in the bottom half of the list in legal aid, judiciary and, especially, police, where it is ranked a dismal 16th out of these 18 states.
What makes the report particularly relevant and its findings hard to ignore is that it uses government data to assess the budgets, infrastructure, human resources, workload, diversity and five-year trends of police, prisons, judiciary and legal aid in each state against its own declared standards. The analysis for Bengal highlights stark inconsistencies in policy- making and points towards the lack of importance the state has placed on evidence-based decision-making.
Two primary areas of concern lie in the high percentage of vacancies and budgetary allocations. The analysis provides that West Bengal has nearly 50 per cent vacancy in the judiciary and little more than 25 per cent vacancy in police staff. Further, Bengal’s budgetary allocation for police, prisons and judiciary has not been able to keep pace with the corresponding increases in general state expenditure between 2012 and 2016.
Where West Bengal may be commended, however, is in the improvement in the last five years on all parameters, where it is ranked first. While this statistic may reflect the significant efforts being made by the state, there are aspects that must be addressed, that too on an urgent basis. For instance, without adequate budgetary allocation, the upward trends that are reflected from the five-year trend analysis may witness a slowdown in the coming years.
It is in policing that West Bengal lags behind considerably. There has been an increase in constable vacancies; the state reports 42 per cent vacancy in the number of scheduled caste officers, 55 per cent vacancy in scheduled tribe officers and a staggering 82 per cent vacancy in other backward classes officers. Another point of concern is the participation of women in the police force; women account for less than 10 per cent of the total staff strength. A statistic to note is that the report estimates that it will take 29 years for West Bengal to reach the Centrally/constitutionally mandated figure of 33 per cent share for women in its police force. The budgetary allocation and spending for police have not increased proportionately with the increase in general state expenditure.
West Bengal has made rapid strides in its prison system which is reflected by its commendable rank — fourth. However, a relatively higher rank does not indicate that all is well. There remain areas which need urgent attention, such as the scale of vacancies — 75 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively — among medical staff and medical officers placed in correctional homes. The inmate per prison officer ratio has become skewed in the past five years. A silver lining, however, is that the state has been able to utilize 99 per cent of the prison budget between 2016-17.
A fundamental prerequisite for an efficient judicial system is creation and upgradation of the criminal justice infrastructure. West Bengal, ranked 10th out of 18 large and mid-sized states in this pillar, has not commensurately increased its spending in judiciary along with its spending for the state in general. An increase in vacancies in the high court and subordinate courts remains a cause for worry. Bengal’s per capita spend in judiciary in 2015-16 was among the lowest in the country, while the population per high court judge is among the highest. A comforting statistic that the report shares is that Calcutta High Court is among the handful of high courts that have reported a case clearance rate of over 100 per cent: this means that the number of cases disposed of is higher than the number of cases filed between 2013-2017. The subordinate courts have reported a case clearance rate of over 90 per cent. At the same time, however, 32.1 per cent of the ongoing cases in subordinate courts have been pending for five years or more.
The legal aid mechanism, statutorily controlled by the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, is crucial when it comes to access to justice as a large part of India’s population cannot afford legal services privately. The district legal services authorities are the bodies entrusted with providing free legal aid in the districts. In Bengal, 83 per cent of the districts are within the coverage of DLSAs and there isn’t a single vacant post of a DLSA secretary, which is commendable. Paralegal volunteers, who act as the bridge between the people and the legal aid system, are present in Bengal too: there are two for every one lakh persons. While Bengal does well on most parameters of this pillar, underutilization of funds from the National Legal Services Authority and the state’s share in legal aid spending seem to have kept it from climbing high in the rankings.
The India Justice Report should be treated as a milestone by those at the helm of affairs in the state. Bengal, it appears, has performed well in some sectors while facing challenges in others. The report, intended to be forward-looking, ends with a set of nudges for the stakeholders to overcome these challenges. These include undertaking a cost-benefit analysis that quantifies the cost of increasing human resources against the economic price of failing to address registered crime, disorder, incarceration and judicial delay caused by high workloads and inadequate manpower; ensuring adequate budgetary allocations, availability of justice services in rural areas and diversity; periodic review of performance; improving transparency; and engaging in evidence-based approach to policymaking.
This report should act as a wake-up call for West Bengal and encourage its leaders to go beyond discussing to acting within a clear time frame with specific goals to improve the state’s performance in these areas.