Only 60% of India’s jails had video conferencing facilities just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, finds a report released by Tata Trusts. Less than half of all states and Union Territories had these facilities in 90% of their jails.

As in many countries, India’s Supreme Court directed in April 2020 that court proceedings be conducted via video-conferencing to minimise physical appearances and enable social distancing. However, India’s justice systems were not fully equipped to deal with the emergency, the India Justice Report, 2020 finds.

The India Justice Report 2020 data for police are, as on January 1, from the Bureau of Police Research and Development; prisons, December 31, 2020 Prisons Statistics of India; judiciary, 2018-’19 and 2020 (Supreme Court and Department of Justice) and legal aid, 2019-’20 and March 2020 (National Legal Services Authority).

The India Justice Report 2020 has analysed the progress made by 18 large and mid-sized states with more than 10 million people, and seven small states and Union Territories, across “four pillars of justice delivery” – police, judiciary, prisons and legal aid – before the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in March 2020.

In its second edition, India Justice Report 2020 includes two new indicators on the incorporation of technology in the justice system – video-conferencing facilities in jails and accessibility of state online citizen portals – prompted by the increasing reliance on such technologies due to the pandemic. Only 10 of 36 states and UTs had video conferencing facilities in all their jails, it finds.

India Justice Report 2020 also analyses the 25 states and UTs’ progress on 53 indicators, including: budget allocations and utilisation, infrastructure and human resources, workload including case pendency and diversity in the police, judiciary, prison and legal aid systems. Data for the remaining states and UTs are provided, but not included in the rankings.

Among the 18 larger states, the report ranks Maharashtra, once again, as the best in delivery of justice overall, and Uttar Pradesh, once again, the worst. While Karnataka tops the list in terms of caste diversity of personnel, the report estimates that Jammu and Kashmir will take up to 428 years to reach the recommended 33% share of women in its police force.

The findings come soon after the Rule of Law Index 2020 ranked India 69th among 128 countries, below Sri Lanka and Nepal. India was also ranked among the bottom 25 of 163 countries in the Global Peace Index 2020, despite climbing higher by two ranks at a time when peace has declined globally due to “a new wave of tension and uncertainty” resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. This placed India below Bhutan (19), Nepal (73), Sri Lanka (77) and Bangladesh (97).

Here are the key findings of the report, some of which we will explore at length in future stories.

Video conferencing, online citizen portals

The Supreme Court’s guidelines – on the increased use of video conferencing in the apex court, High Courts and district courts to “ensure the continued dispensation of justice” while preventing transmission of Covid-19 – came 11 years after an amendment was made to the Code of Criminal Procedure to allow video conferencing for prescribed proceedings, including as an alternative to producing accused persons in court.

However, only two large and mid-sized states – Haryana and Uttarakhand – had video conferencing facilities in all their jails as of December 2019, according to IJR 2020. Tamil Nadu had the lowest proportion of jails with these facilities, at 9%, followed by Karnataka (31%), West Bengal (32%), Rajasthan (38%) and Kerala (42%).

“Technology should be used to improve the accountability of duty-holders across pillars and to increase transparency in the system, not just to monitor the public,” Maja Daruwala, chief editor of India Justice Report, told IndiaSpend. Video conferencing facilities became important against the backdrop of the March 2020 Supreme Court direction to High Courts to set up high-powered committees to decongest prisons, she added.

Among small states, UTs and unranked states, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Chandigarh, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Delhi and Puducherry had video conferencing facilities in all their jails.

Daman and Diu, Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim had no video conferencing facilities in any of their jails.

Online citizen portals aimed at providing nine basic services, such as filing and tracking of complaints, reporting of lost vehicles and property, and applying for various verifications and permissions, had accessibility gaps, the report finds. While all states except Bihar have these portals, many of them did not work, required specific internet browsers or were not available in local languages. “On the whole, we found that these portals were floundering,” said Daruwala.

The state portals of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh got nine out of 10 points for their portals’ accessibility, completeness of services offered and availability in a state language other than English.

Despite repeated attempts over five months from June to October 2020, during the phased reopening post-lockdown, the portals of six states – Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura – and the UT of Lakshadweep were not accessible, the report says. IndiaSpend found the portals for Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Lakshadweep dysfunctional at the time of writing.

Maharashtra and UP are best and worst for a second year

India Justice Report 2020 rankings are based on 53 indicators, including:

  • The numbers of women among judges, police and police officers, prison staff and legal aid panel lawyers
  • Numbers of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes among police constables and officers
  • Vacancies in police forces, prison staff and judges benches
  • Case pendency and clearance rates
  •   Utilisation of budgets across the justice system.

Data for eight union territories and three other states – Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is enforced – are provided but not ranked. Data for the two Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, where AFSPA is also in force, are provided as one unit.

Two states among the top five large and medium states in India Justice Report 2019 – Maharashtra and Punjab – have maintained their positions at one and four, respectively. Kerala has slipped from second to fifth place, due to a fall in its rankings in legal aid, policing and prisons. “We must remember that Kerala’s baseline start points are higher than other states – and again this is about structures and not performance or quality,” said Daruwala.

Haryana has dropped from the fifth to the ninth place, its performance worsening in all four pillars. Tripura is ranked the best among the small states, after being adjudged as the worst in 2019. It achieved this by improving its performance on legal aid and prisons, where it has climbed to rank 2 from 5.

Karnataka, ranked 14 overall, is best in indicators related to police, Tamil Nadu (2nd overall) in judiciary, Rajasthan (10 overall) in prisons and Maharashtra in legal aid.

While Maharashtra is the best performing state overall, it failed to score more than six points out of a possible 10 in the overall assessment of its performance across the four pillars. Uttar Pradesh, ranked last at 18, is the only state among the last three in 2019 to not show any progress in India Justice Report 2020. Bihar ranked 17 in 2019, has risen four spots to 13th place and Jharkhand to the eighth place from 16.

Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were the top three states in the effective functioning of the police, prisons, the judiciary and legal aid, IndiaSpend reported in November 2019.

Women representation improved, but is still low

India Justice Report 2020 also measures diversity among high court and district level judiciary, in police and prison staff, and as lawyers for legal aid across 13 indicators, including the share of women.

Women make up 10.3% of the total police force in India, as per a recently released report by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, significantly lower than the recommended 33%. None of the states had reached the recommended proportion and most will take decades to do so, India Justice Report 2020 calculates, based on the average numbers of women in their police force over the past five years. Eight states and UTs will take more than 100 years to cross the recommended 33% share, at current averages.

Since 2019, 12 states have seen a decrease in the share of women in their police forces. Kerala, which was calculated as needing 87 years to reach 33% share of women in the police force last year, now looks set to take 117 years. Similarly, Maharashtra, which in 2019 would have taken 14 years, may now take 67 years.

Small improvements are being made but bridging the historical gender gap will need “some positive disruptive change”, said Daruwala. “In the justice system, most of which is considered a man’s domain, we see wherever women are present it is often at the lower levels or in less ‘significant’ positions.”

Bureaucratic delays in selection and appointment are roadblocks in increasing the share of women in the force, IndiaSpend reported from Kerala in February 2020.

Bihar was recorded as having the highest share of women in its police force, constituting about a quarter (25.3%), but most of its women police were concentrated among the lower ranks. Only 6% of its police officers were women. This trend is visible in most states, in the judiciary and legal aid staff as well.

Karnataka has the most caste diversity

Diversity is also measured across caste composition indicators at police officer and constabulary levels. Karnataka had the most diverse justice system among large and mid-sized states, followed by Odisha and Kerala, according to the India Justice Report 2020.

It was the only state to exceed its police officer-level quotas for all three caste groups – SC (126%), ST (186%) and OBC (164%). Six states had met or exceeded their SC quota, seven had met or exceeded their ST officer quota and eight their OBC officer quota, according to the report.

Karnataka and Chhattisgarh had met or exceeded their constabulary SC, ST and OBC reservations, while eight states and UTs had done so for their SC constable quota and 12 states and UTs for their ST and OBC quota.

“Ideally, official data should record various types of diversity (caste, tribe, language, religion, and gender) at all levels in each institution, but it does not,” the India Justice Report 2020 points out. “At present, publicly available official measurements are limited to capturing only the inclusion of castes and women.” But even within caste data, there are gaps, with lower levels of the system enumerated while those in higher levels – including high court judges – left undocumented. Caste data also cannot be uniformly compared across different states and systems as it is not uniformly collected, the report notes.

More than 40% high court judge vacancies in eight states

At least one in three prison officer posts were vacant in 12 large and medium states and more than 40% high court judge vacancies were reported in eight states. In legal aid, nine large and medium states had reported no vacancies for the post of District Legal Services Authority secretaries, while Chhattisgarh had the most vacancies, at 48%.

A lack of human resources within the legal aid system, low awareness about the availability of legal aid, shortage of women paralegals, and a lack of monitoring make it difficult for victims to access legal aid, an IndiaSpend ground report noted in February 2020.

Gautam Doshi, an intern at IndiaSpend, provided inputs for this story.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.