The number of prisoners on death row at the end of 2021 was the highest in 17 years, according to a recent report by Project 39A, a research and advocacy group at New Delhi’s National Law University.

As of December 31, 2020, as many as total of 404 prisoners in India were facing death sentences, an increase of nearly 21% from 2020. Uttar Pradesh, with 86 convicts, had the highest number of such prisoners, followed by Maharashtra (41) and West Bengal (37), according to the report.

Jammu and Kashmir with two death sentence convicts, and Himachal Pradesh with three of them, have the lowest numbers.

State-wise number of prisoners facing death sentence. (Source: Project 39A)

“When compared with data from the Prison Statistics of India reports released by the National Crime Records Bureau, this is the highest the death row population has been since 2004, when it was 563,” the report said.

The report said that the limited functioning of courts due to the pandemic impacted the priority given to death penalty related cases.

“Appellate courts decided far fewer matters,” the report said. “The High Courts decided 39 matters in 2021 and 31 matters in 2020 compared to 76 in 2019.”

The Supreme Court, despite having listed 40 death sentence matters on priority, decided on only six of them in 2021, compared to 11 in 2020 and 28 in 2019.

However, a sharp rise was seen in the number of death sentences given by trial courts. In 2020, trial courts sentenced 78 persons to death – the lowest ever due to pandemic. However, in 2021, the number nearly doubled to 144, according to the report.

The majority of the death sentence cases in trial courts were in cases of murder (62 out of 144), followed by matters involving sexual offences (48 out of 144).

“For the first time in six years, the death penalty was imposed by a trial court for dealing in spurious liquor,” the report said. Nine people were sentenced to death in a case related to spurious liquor that had claimed 19 lives in August 2016.