Chandrabhan Singh and Ramesh Jabbar from Panipat, Haryana, were let out of Delhi’s Tihar Jail in keeping with the Supreme Court’s order to prevent overcrowded prisons from becoming coronavirus hotbeds. But they claim the jail authorities didn’t provide them any transport, so they had to walk all the way home amid the lockdown.Basant KumarApr 20, 2020, 10:40 AM

Driving on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway on April 14, we came upon two men just past the Singhu border checkpoint. They were walking on the deserted road towards Panipat, Haryana, each carrying a yellow duffle bag and a bottle of water. Where are they going in the middle of the day, under the scorching sun during the nationwide lockdown?

They were inmates at Delhi’s Tihar Jail and had been released the previous night in keeping with a Supreme Court order. But the authorities had not provided them a vehicle and there was no public transport owing to the lockdown. Panipat is nearly 100 km from the Tihar Jail.

On March 24, the Supreme Court of India directed all states and union territories to identify and release undertrial prisoners and parole convicts serving sentences of seven years or less. The idea was to prevent India’s overcrowded jails from becoming hotbeds of the coronavirus epidemic.

India’s prisons have grown severely overcrowded over the years. As per the 2019 National Crime Records Bureau report, the country’s 1,339 prisons housed 4,66,084 inmates in 2018 as against their combined capacity of 3,92,230.

The prisoners

The two men walking to Panipat were Chandrabhan Singh and Ramesh Jabbar.

Chandrabhan, from Brahmanand Colony in Panipat, has spent eight years in jail, having been convicted of culpable homicide.

“I used to work in Delhi. In 2012, I got into a fight with a few people at the Azadpur vegetable market and someone was killed, unintentionally,” he said. “I have been in prison since then.”

He added, “I came out after eight years but nobody could come to take me home due to the lockdown. When we didn’t find any vehicle outside either, we started on foot early in the morning. It’s noon and we just crossed Delhi. If we keep at it, we’ll reach home at night, hopefully.”

He was angry with the Tihar Jail authorities. “When we asked for transport, they told us there wasn’t any. They said if you want to leave, go immediately or you would have to stay here,” he said. “So we are walking.”

Ramesh, also from Panipat, had been granted parole for eight weeks.

“I had lent money to someone and it went sour when he did not pay me back for a long time,” he said. “We got into a fight, after which they charged me under 307. I have finally got parole after being in prison since 2013.” Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code punishes an attempt to murder.

Ramesh was looking forward to being with his family for a while. But the irony of this situation wasn’t lost on him. “I have the worst luck. I have been away for seven years and still no one could come and get me,” he said, chuckling. “We are walking home with empty bellies and parched throats, with 60 more km to go.”

He was equally furious at the Tihar Jail authorities, “They just showed us the door and told us to go home. They told us, ‘Our job is to release you, not to ensure you reach your destination. You may go where you please.’ They didn’t give us anything to eat either.”

The allegations of the two men are quite troubling, indicating serious negligence of duty by the Tihar authorities.

Tihar’s response

Following the Supreme Court’s order, the Tihar administration prepared a list of inmates deemed eligible for parole. “I cannot divulge the total number of inmates we are prepared to release right now but I can tell you we have released 2,700 inmates from Delhi and outside for six to eight weeks, on parole,” Raj Kumar, Tihar’s Public Relations Officer, told Newslaundry.

He denied the allegations made by Ramesh and Chandrabhan.

Asked why they hadn’t been provided some transport to get home, Kumar, who is also the additional inspector general of Tihar, said, “These allegations are baseless. We’re planning and sending prisoners from outside Delhi to their homes every day. All the vehicles of the Delhi Armed Police are being utilised for this and we have already dropped 50 prisoners home.”

Why were Ramesh and Chandrabhan walking home then? “They probably told us about some relatives in Delhi where they were planning to go. That might be the reason we let them leave,” he claimed. “After not finding their relatives home, they might have decided to walk to Panipat. I cannot comment on the allegations they are making. But what I am telling you are the facts.”

Amid these claims and counterclaims, one thing is certain: the apathy of the Indian bureaucracy towards its citizens has once again turned a well-meaning measure into a hardship as well as a public health hazard.

***courtesy Newslaundry