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'A lifelong nightmare': Seeking justice in country's overwhelmed courts

India has one of the world's lowest ratios of judges to population. A rigid system with archaic rules inherited from the British also slows the process. Lawyers make endless oral arguments and produce lengthy written submissions.
Last Updated : 13 January 2024, 17:21 IST
Last Updated : 13 January 2024, 17:21 IST

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When the armed men stormed into the village of those from the 'lower-caste', fanning out through its dirt lanes and flinging open the doors of its mud homes, Binod Paswan jumped into a grain silo and peered out in horror.

Within hours, witnesses say, upper-caste landlords massacred 58 Dalits, people once known as "untouchables," most of them farmworkers in Bihar who had been agitating for higher wages. Seven of them were members of Paswan's family.

The next day, he lodged a police complaint, and investigators soon filed charges. That was 26 years ago. He is still waiting -- after conflicting verdicts and hundreds of court hearings, with some witnesses now dead or impaired by fading eyesight -- for a resolution.

"A cry for justice turned into a lifelong nightmare for us," said Paswan, 45.

In a vast nation with no shortage of intractable problems, it is one of the longest-running and most far-reaching: India's staggeringly overburdened judicial system.

The country's economy is growing rapidly, technology is reshaping more than 1 billion lives and national leaders are striving for global power, but the country seems to have few answers for the ever-deepening court backlogs that deprive citizens of their rights and hamper business activity.

More than 50 million cases are pending across the country, according to the National Judicial Data Grid -- a pileup that has doubled over the past two decades. At the current pace, it would take more than 300 years to clear India's docket.

There are many reasons for the backlogs. India has one of the world's lowest ratios of judges to population, with just 21 per million people, compared with about 150 in the United States. For decades, leaders and courts have set a target of 50 judges per million people. But there have been no sizable funding increases to hire more judges, improve court facilities and digitize procedures, as officials deem other priorities more important.

A rigid system with archaic rules inherited from the British also slows the process. Lawyers make endless oral arguments and produce lengthy written submissions. Little has changed even as government committees have recommended an end to the writing of testimonies by hand and to time-consuming procedures in examining witnesses.

Delays are endemic in both criminal and civil cases. About 77 per cent of prisoners in India are awaiting trial, compared with 1 in 3 worldwide. Of the more than 11 million pending civil cases, most of which involve disputes over land or other property, nearly a quarter are at least five years old.

The country's longest-running legal dispute -- a bank liquidation case -- was settled last January after 72 years. In June, a 90-year-old man was given life in prison for his involvement in a 42-year-old case.

"What are we doing about resolving the issue? Frankly, nothing," Madan Lokur, a former Supreme Court judge, said in a recent interview.

"How long will it take to get a decision in your case?" he added. "If you're fortunate, maybe in your lifetime."

Judges churn through scores of cases every day, many of them nuisance filings by the government or citizens. Quick hearings lead to adjournments -- and the backlog grows.

The Centre would seem to have a direct interest in easing the delays: It is the country's biggest litigant, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of pending cases.

But successive administrations have used the courts' vulnerability as a political weapon. Fights between the judiciary and the executive branch over judicial appointments have reached new heights under PM Narendra Modi, who critics say has largely cowed the courts as he consolidates power across the country's many institutions.

The Supreme Court remains a last resort for justice, but its judges are often bogged down by less-consequential matters like marriage or property disputes. When they do rule, the judges are increasingly seen as favoring the government, which has showered retirement perks on jurists who appear to toe the line, experts say.

And while opposition politicians and activists accused of crimes often languish for years in legal limbo, government supporters facing the same have an easier time getting bail.

The glacial pace of India's judiciary was evident one recent morning in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.

Hundreds of plaintiffs and defendants wandered aimlessly through the court complex's crowded corridors, while lawyers holding papers under their arms took sips of hot milk and ginger tea.

In one corner, a lawyer and police officers joked with a milkman who had been accused more than a decade ago of selling adulterated products. The inspector who filed the case never appeared in court and was transferred from the town. The milkman, Mahender, who uses one name, has appeared at dozens of hearings anyway. The judge calls his name, the accused raises his hand, the inspector and a witness are absent, and another court date is assigned.

Even lawyers who become plaintiffs can struggle to navigate the system.

In 1999, an Indian Railways ticketing officer overcharged Tungnath Chaturvedi, a lawyer at the Mathura court, by 25 cents. Chaturvedi, 67, said he filed a case not because of the money, but because of the agent's attitude.

It took him 120 hearings over 23 years to get a verdict. Last year, a consumer court ordered the railway to pay a fine of about $188, as well as the outstanding amount of 25 cents, plus 12% interest. Still, Indian Railways went to the highest court in Uttar Pradesh, and it reduced the fine to $80.

"When I filed the case, I used to go up and down the five stories of the court every day to attend court hearings," Chaturvedi said. "When the judge delivered the verdict in my case, I was not able to walk from my home to the court because of arthritis. And I had already retired from work. That is the story of the Indian judiciary."

Many cases are far more serious, and the toll on those waiting for justice is much greater.

In June 1997, Neelam Krishnamoorthy lost her two children, ages 17 and 13, in a fire at a Delhi movie theater that killed 59 people.

Her struggle to get justice inspired a Netflix series and countless newspaper articles. Her activism led to improved fire safety measures in shopping malls and theaters.

Ten years after the fire, 16 men, including the cinema's owners and staff members and safety inspectors, were found guilty of negligence. Four of the men were already dead.

The two brothers who owned the theater, both powerful real estate barons, were given two years in prison, a sentence that Krishnamoorthy appealed to the Supreme Court. It did not rule until 2015, waiving the sentence and instead fining the brothers; Krishnamoorthy appealed again.

She continues to make the court rounds, now accusing the brothers of tampering with evidence.

"Had I known it would take more than two decades to even get bare minimum justice, I don't think I would have gone to court," Krishnamoorthy said. "I would have picked up a gun and shot the perpetrators; at least I would have got the sense of justice."

Justice has also been elusive for the victims of the 1997 village massacre in Bihar. In 2010, a court found 26 people guilty, giving 16 of them death sentences and the others life imprisonment. The men challenged the verdict in a higher court, and two years later, citing a lack of evidence, it acquitted all 26 defendants.

Paswan and a few other eyewitnesses filed an appeal at the Supreme Court in 2014. The case has come before the judges nine times, but Paswan has no idea what is going on.

Days after the massacre, Dalit leaders erected a red brick memorial just outside his home. The names and ages of the 58 people who died are inscribed in Hindi. Twenty-seven women -- eight of them pregnant -- and 16 children were among the dead.

"When I look at this memorial, I can hear cries of people for help," Paswan said. "It also serves as a constant reminder of injustice done to lower-caste people by the courts of this country."

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Published 13 January 2024, 17:21 IST

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