HIS death was a certainty. On April4, 1994, Mohammed Tahir, a prisoner on trial in Bihar's Kishanganj subdivisional jail, was set free. In custody, he had faced near-starvation and reeled under an attack of jaundice, both of which he (and the jail) had been ill-equipped to handle. When Tahir's condition worsened, the authorities were left with two options: to continue keeping him in custody and face the flak in the event of his death, or let him go. They opted for the latter. Tahir stepped out a free man, and collapsed a couple of hours later, just yards away from the high walls that had been his home for years: dead.
Two years since, members of Tahir's family are still begging for a few crumbs from the state. But in the interim, l' affaire Tahir has grown larger than one of mere compensation. The Patna High Court has asked the Bihar Government and its prison administration for a detailed report on all the 76 jails in the state—on the availability of food and medical facilities, the living conditions of inmates, and the possible violation of the jail manual. Before the summer recess in May, the High Court also asked a small group of lawyers to visit the jails and study the conditions therein.
The court move came in the wake of a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Sunil Kumar Jha and his lawyer Kamlesh Jain, who said that Tahir's death was not the only case of negligence in Kishanganj jail. There have been numerous instances of gross violation of human rights and the jail manual earlier. The PIL also pointed out cases of corruption and apathy. Inmates were being given far less food and calories than were actually prescribed and sanctioned by the state government.
A preliminary report has ascertained that at least 31 of the 76 jails are overcrowded, housing two to eight times the number of inmates they have room for. What is worse, food is supplied not on the basis of the number of prisoners actually present in the jail premises on the day but on the basis of the quota allotted to the jail. The short supply on the one hand and the cor-ruption prevalent on the other automatically cause food scarcity for the inmates.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has refused to take cognisance of the charge of human rights neglect although certain cases pertain to just that. An investigation by Jain in Kishanganj revealed that at least eight persons were languishing here under Sections 107 and 109 of the Criminal Penal Code, essentially provisions for preventive detention, for months. The law, however, is clear that they need not be there even for a day.
Almost in confirmation of the infamous Rudal Saha case—Saha spent 14 years in a state jail after his acquittal and was set free only after the Supreme Court intervened in 1983—the investigation also stumbled across cases where the court's bail order had not been executed because the under-trials had been unable to find bailers. In some other cases, prisoners simply believed that once in jail, they had forfeited every right, including the right to defence.
At present, there are no arrangements to acquaint the prisoners with their legal and human rights. Take the case of 90-year-old Wajuddin, who is totally blind and unable to move around on his own. A few months ago, he was charged under Section 366 of the Indian Penal Code for allegedly abducting a girl, and sent to Kishanganj jail. All he knows now is that his situation may not be different from Tahir's because he has no one to assist him.
Once the prisoners enter the jail, the authorities do not bother to fulfill the statutory requirements. Although they have to produce undertrials before the court every 45 days, most of them are not because they do not have enough money to pay the police personnel, normally Rs 50 per visit to the court. "The solution is simple. If there's a law, like there's in the United Kingdom, for the state to move bail for the undertrials except in heinous crimes, the major problems will end," says Jain.
But the problem in Bihar jails is more complicated. For instance, the absence of the investigating officer from the lower court in Patna has delayed the trial of many undertrials for about three years. Confidential reports indicate that in one case, a chargesheet was filed 49 years after the undertrial was arrested. In 200 other cases, it took the investigating officer 20-25 years. Officers routinely exploit the lack of stipulated time-frames to fix charge. In the same court, the investigating officer has been absent from a double murder case for three years.
The other problem is the absence of female wards and women staff in jails where cells for women exist. Besides, most jails have inadequate medical, civic and sanitation facilities. However, unlike Delhi's Tihar jail, where inhouse conditions get highlighted because of the VVIP inmates and administrators, Bihar's jails have to wait for sordid cases like Tahir's to elicit judicial concern. Which is why, the Patna High Court's response to the ongoing PIL is being eagerly anticipated. It will decide the fate and condition of thousands languishing in pathetic cells and abominable conditions—some for no fault for theirs.