“It is not about this one bail order being passed after the individual has passed away. There are many undertrial prisoners suffering. They just haven’t become breaking news yet, because they haven’t yet died.”Advocate A Karim Pathan, who represented Suresh Dattaram Pawar while the latter was still alive
As per the India Justice Report 2022, 54% of jails in India are overcrowded. The average national occupancy rate is 130%.
Prisons in Maharashtra are believed to have very high occupancy rates (120-150%). As per a Hindustan Times report, dated August 2022, one such Maharashtra prison — Arthur Road jail, Mumbai — holds 3000 prisoners in a space for 804.
Suresh Dattaram Pawar, 65, an accused in a cheating and forgery case was an under-trial lodged in Arthur-Road before his crumbling health wound him in Mumbai’s JJ Hospital where he breathed his last on 9 May 2023.
Two days later, 11 May, a Mumbai court granted him medical bail on “humanitarian grounds”.
While this bizarre development soon became news, with some even calling for a probe into how this happened, Pawar’s lawyer believes that this incident is only testimony to a lack of communication between the jail authorities and the courts.
The larger problem as per Advocate Pathan, pertains to the treatment meted out to prisoners across jails. And that Pawar’s story isn’t his alone.
“He (Pawar) has been sick since February, and in and out of the hospital. But he did not get proper treatment or the specific diet he required in jail.”Advocate Kareem Pathan
Suresh Pawar was diabetic and had lung infection.
During his time in prison, he sustained an injury to his toe and was admitted to a government hospital. Post discharge he developed gangarene which led to an amputation of his toe. But then his wound became septic and on 30 April — his leg (all the way below his knee) had to be amputated.
The lawyer also said that at the time of Pawar’s surgery, it took him two days to get a slot in the operation theatre, and even in the immediate aftermath of the amputation of his leg — “he was shifted to general ward. (Only) when his health further deteriorated they shifted him into CCU, and then another emergency patient came and he was shifted back to the general ward.”
BUT COULD THIS DELAY IN GRANT OF BAIL HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
Maybe, maybe not.
On 23 April, as per Livelaw, Pawar’s counsel withdrew his bail plea from the Bombay High Court after it was disinclined to grant him bail.
On 30 April, his leg was amputated, and on 3 May, his counsel moved the Sessions Court — which did grant him bail within a few days, but unfortunately, it was still too late.
So, could it have been sooner?
“If all parts of the system had worked properly, there were chances then he might have been released sooner," Pathan answered.
“On 4 May, the court had directed the police to file the medical record. But they did not do it on time. Thereafter, the court had to pass another direction. After that when the medical record was before the court, even then the police and the complainant objected. And then the court became busy with other work."
"Maybe if the events had panned out differently, we would have been able to shift him to a private hospital,” Pathan said.
BUT WHY THE NEED TO SHIFT AN ACCUSED TO A PRIVATE HOSPITAL? WHAT’S GOING ON IN OUR PRISONS?
When Varavara Rao was finally granted bail in February 2020, the Bombay High Court had noted that “sending him back to prison is fraught with risk.”
Rao, whose health had deteriorated drastically during his period of incarceration, had submitted to a court that there were only three Ayurvedic practitioners and no staff nurses, pharmacists or medical specialists to attend to the prisoners at the prison hospital in Taloja.
Rao's co-accused, Jessuit priest Stan Swamy was eighty-four when he passed away as an incarcerated under-trial on 5 July 2021. Like Pawar he too was awaiting bail.
Swamy’s death, in fact, came a day before his bail hearing, and only a few weeks after he had told a court that that his “body functions” had undergone steady decline. All he wanted, he said, was to go home.
As shared by his friend Fr Joseph Xavier in the months before Swamy’s death: the latter had told him on a phone call that he had cough, fever, a running stomach and was highly fragile, and yet “only an Ayurvedic doctor is treating me, and some antibiotics are given.”
When UAPA convict Pandu Narote (33) died from an infection he is believed to have contracted in prison, once again questions arose regarding the health facilities in Maharashtra prisons, and the treatment of ailing inmates. Narote was also admitted at a government hospital when he died. But he had also reportedly been sick for several days before he was shifted there.
In the aftermath of Pawar’s demise, Valay Singh, Project Lead of the India Justice Report told Mid-Day:
"This is a clear indicator of absence of communication between courts and jails. Developing sepsis indicates medical negligence. It is evident in the numbers of doctors in jails."
WHAT THE DATA SHOWS:
At the end of 2021, there were a total of 658 doctors for 1,319 prisons across the country, indicating “half a doctor per prison” or 1 doctor per 842 inmates.
Note: Model Prison Manual requires one doctor for every 300 prisoners.
Besides lack of adequate medical facilities, jails are also notorious for dismal hygiene conditions and poor standards of living that are invariably accorded to inmates.
“Prisoners with ailments or who are medically sensitive almost never get the basic bare minimum so as to keep them in good stead. To add to it, the unempathetic attitude of the jail authorities ensure that even calls for genuine caregiving of any kind are ignored,” Advocate Harshit Anand told The Quint.
“Poor living conditions of inmates further exacerbate the problem of lack of bail.”
It may be noted that about 77% of India's prison population is comprised of under-trials. This means that most people who are in jail haven’t even been proven guilty, but are still deprived of the slightest shred of liberty.
Suresh Pawar was an under-trial. And his ordeal (as of Stan Swamy’s) shows that even medical bail may not be easy to come by. This even though, as pointed out by Anand, “the threshold for medical bail is lower than regular bail already”.
Besides, right to life is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the constitution of India. No prisoner — whether under-trial or convicted — can be deprived of it, except by procedure established by law.
But reports of abysmal living conditions in jails and crumbling health of inmates remain unabated. How many more Swamys, Narotes and Pawars will it take for the authorities to sit up and pay heed to their plight?