India is sending a special team to the UK to quickly bring back fugitives like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi. So in today’s Finshots, we tell you how one reform might just aid this cause.

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The Story

₹40,000 crores!

That’s how much India’s top 10 Fugitive Economic Offenders (FEOs) owed the country as of 2023. And you too can enter the ignominious list if you go on a run to avoid prosecution and you have an arrest warrant against you for economic offences worth at least ₹100 crores.

Some of the big names in this list include Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Mehul Choksi. All 3 individuals left the country when they realised they could be prosecuted in India for various economic offences. And the Indian government has been trying to bring them back to face justice. However, there have been difficulties in getting these people back home. For context, over the last five years India has declared 10 people as FEOs. But we’ve only been able to successfully extradite 4 of them over the same period.

So why is it so hard to bring back fugitives who’ve taken refuge overseas?

Well, on the face of it, extraditing a criminal from a foreign country isn’t a cakewalk even if we have an extradition treaty in place. In fact, despite having extradition treaties with over 40 countries, you can see that progress has been slow. This is because the countries we work with have to believe these fugitives are guilty of crimes that we accuse them of. So it's incumbent on Indian authorities to prove this much. But that’s not all. They must also be convinced that extradited individuals are not denied basic human rights and are accorded a fair and free trial. And this is where things get tricky.

When our authorities tried to get the UK to extradite some of these popular fugitives there was one common argument their lawyers relied on. They said “Hey, India’s prison conditions are pretty bad. Their health could be at risk.” And courts in the UK seem to agree with this line of thought.

In 2014, a UK High Court refused to extradite Raymond Varley, a British citizen after he was found guilty of a non-economic offence in India. Its reason? Varley was a senior citizen with a mental illness whose condition could deteriorate if sent to India. Another similar case occurred in 2017. A UK Court refused to extradite Sanjeev Chawla, a criminal guilty of match-fixing because Tihar Jail’s conditions were appalling and detention there would amount to a violation of his human rights. He was eventually extradited 3 years later. But that's the only time we've managed to extradite an individual from the UK after we signed an extradition treaty with the country back in 1992.

Okay. So, this all boils down to our prison conditions then?

Well, that could be one key reason.

Because Indian prisons are in fact overcrowded. Over the last five years, their average occupancy rate has been nearly 25% more than they could accommodate. And the major culprit is undertrials — close to three-fourths of these inmates are still in the process of being proven guilty. And while the number of undertrials increased by an average of 5% year on year, the prison capacity has increased by a measly 2%.

Then there’s the problem of insufficient expenditure. If you look at the Prison Statistics reports of the past 5 years, you’ll see that although the government does allocate higher amounts to the prison system every year, it might not be enough. For instance, we spend an average of just ₹130 per prisoner every day. That includes everything ― food, clothing, medicines and vocational training to help them improve their skills. On the other hand, as per the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report, it will cost nearly ₹180 per day to meet a person’s basic nutritional needs alone.

And finally, another thing going against the prison system might be the lack of medical staff. In 2021, The Leaflet pointed out that only 59% of the allotted provision of medical staff was employed in prisons. That put the number at about 1.4 medical staff per prison — including doctors and others. That may not be enough to care for the health of the inmates in over-occupied prisons.

So what’s the solution, you ask?

Well, we might need some major prison reforms.

See, we told you earlier that undertrials are overcrowding prisons. So you’d think that utilising funds to build more prisons would be a solution. But that’s only partially correct.

Overcrowding could be tackled to a certain extent if undertrials as well as convicts over 75 years old or those who have mental illnesses could be released as a respite measure. This could shrug some pressure off jail occupancy rates. But since that may not always be possible, such inmates could also be moved to open prisons instead of  jail cells. And this isn’t a solution we whipped out of thin air. It’s something that a report by a Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs suggested a couple of months ago.

Another suggestion it has up its sleeve is to improve prison budgets without actually increasing them. See, India has a few colonial-era jails that are over a century old. These could be converted into tourist attractions to bring in revenue. The Gujarat Government for example has a proposal to convert Ahmedabad’s Jail Bhajiya House, an eatery run by jail inmates into a restaurant cum historical gallery. And that makes sense since here’s where revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi, Sardar Patel and many others spent jail time. If other states could identify similar sources of revenue, it could help them manage expenses more efficiently.

But yeah, that doesn’t mean prisons don’t need better financial assistance from the government. Over 10 state governments don’t receive funds for prison reforms at all. So identifying and fixing those lapses is something governments may have to do before they start appealing to foreign governments to extradite Indian fugitives.

Until then inadequate systems will only make it easy for these folks to escape extradition. They just need to convince foreign courts that India’s prisons aren’t fit to accommodate them. And yeah, the fugitives will continue to remain fugitives.

Hopefully, things improve in the near future.

Until then...

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