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Neha Singhal is currently a Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Delhi. She was the Deputy Director of the Death Penalty Research Project. She has worked on the report titled “The Working of The NDPS Act in Punjab”. She is currently in Judicial Reforms team at Vidhi. In recent conversation with IJLPP, she talks about her work on The NDPS Act, quality of research work in India and much more.
Q. To start with, the research work in India is getting strong. Back sometime when we would have to see some fascinating empirical research we will only had few reports and mostly by foreign professors like George Gadbois or Herbert Hisch. Where do you think this field of law stands today? Have we started off or are we still very pre-mature about it?
I think it is both. We as legal researchers have realized the importance of empirical research. This is especially true for judicial research as everybody understands the need for data and empirical findings. We are still at very premature stage when it comes to empirical studies as data is not easily available. Institutions responsible for keeping them do not provide it. Even data from E-Court website are not well managed. These websites crash frequently. Also, we, as researchers don’t share data with each other as often as we should, which makes work a little more difficult. So, yes empirical data is important, but we are still at very premature stage.
Q. In follow up to this question only, the situation is problematic on the government side too because collecting data or information from government institutions is very difficult. In your report of “Ranking Lower Court Appointments”, it mentions how better documentation could have helped understanding the problem in process. In your experience,
a) How much has govt. responded to the field of research in public policy? Are they getting involved too?
b) Is there an interference? Has there been any instance of gatekeeping by the state obstructing in research?
No, there are no impediments in research, but govt. is not actively forthcoming with data. While researching for this report, we realized that a lot of information, which was displayed on their websitewas outdated. After the report came out, a couple of states claimed that you only considered the material that was availableonline, but we have newer regulations which have been updated. Now, it is the responsibility of the state to keep its website updated. We often don’t receive RTI replies from authorities. The govt. is poor in replying to these applications and judiciary is even more slow on this.
Q. You have been critique of Death Penalty and also has been part of Death Penalty Project. Despite the clear inferences by the report on inefficiency of Death Penalty, a perception exists even now in India that heinous crime can only be retributed by death penalty. This question has political side to it as sometimes the law is amended just to gain popular legitimacy and acts like a Moral Panic support. How do you see these steps of government: is it an ignorance or simply misleading for self-interest?
The death penalty is an easy approach to put rest to public fear about crime. Yes, it is misleading people and I sincerely doubt that government does not know that death penalty does not work. As researchers, we have been advocating for alternatives to retributive justice, because this is not the solution to crime. One must understand that when a serious crime like rape and murder of a minor is committed, people indistinctively believe that the perpetrators should be killed. Retributive justice is instinctive justice. Legislature also believes in easy answers, and the death penalty is easy. It allays public fear, but there is no evidence that the death penalty actually helps reduce crime.
Q. In furtherance of same, when we see on the people side there is lack of awareness among them. Not only with respect to death penalty but certain basic tenants like anonymity of victim of sexual abuse, media trial etc. It is so often a discussed topic about reforms that there must be awareness but, yet we see rarely any progression there. What’s your take?
The number of people saying there should be awareness amongst the masses are miniscule. Responsibility of creating awareness is that of the state. Now what are the chances that this will be done? Any reform to work must be done in a proper way, and reforms are needed in police and the criminal justice system. There is a need to change the way we look at justice. Countries that don’t have the death penalty have a different attitude. People there don’t seem to be blood thirsty. They still feel that justice has been done, as long as the perpetrator is punished and guilt is assigned to him. But in India we have a very polarized view on justice. It is either leave them or hang them. Spectrum of punishment is not even considered. We really need to educate people on this.
Q. NDPS Act is considered among harshest of laws in India. There is also criticism that it criminalizes even custom based use. It makes no distinguish between a peddler or consumer etc. Is the act lacking in evidence-based law making or where do you think the solution to this infamous act lies?
It is not just that punishment is quantity based or that burden of proof is reversed, there are lot of problems with this law. The law was amended by Rajiv Gandhi govt. in late 1980s in response to a threat of narco-terrorism. The focus was entirely on deterrence without thinking about what deterrence means. At that time, by law, even if a person would be in possession of 1 gm of marijuana, you would be punished with minimum mandatory punishment. Law has not thought about who it will impact. Intermediaries and users are caught, and traffickers get away. Intent of person is not looked at; the person cannot argue against it. So, the only argument against prosecution is to accept that I had the possession but that was not a conscious possession. This act also does not require corroboration with witness. Only statutory witnesses are enough. Other problems are just on the quantity-based punishment, mandatory punishments and this does not consider any other factor like your age, mental status etc.
Bail is hard to get that is increasing undertrials in jails. All of these were added to add have deterrence effect of the law.
Q. Coming to Drug problem in India, there has been criticism that the police lack any technology to test or store seized drugs. Where do you place this problem in legal system of NDPS act?
I don’t think this is a NDPS problem. This is a systemic problem. The implementation of the criminal justice system is weak. There is poor funding and the law is often misused. For example, sometimes, even in petty cases of chain snatching, police charge the accused with provisions of the NDPS Act to remove them from the streets. NDPS Act alone is not the problem, it is a problem in how the system works in our country.
Q. You have been part of Judicial reform team at Vidhi. A direct question here, why such a huge backlog and delay in decision making?
Delay in backlog is due to so many reasons. Reason can be as simple as computers not working or no electricity supply, which makes it difficult for district courts to work. Judicial exams are not conducted timely. It is the way judiciary allocates time to cases as there are so many adjournments given in the case. This is how the system has been working. Workload on magistrate is too much. Almost 100 cases a day which gives so much of psychological burden. Also, there are many cases where process is added to the trial as summons are not served by the police. So, there are innumerable reasons to count for delay in cases and backlogs.
Q. Lastly, there has been criticism that policy centers have failed to reach out to the masses at large. The reports are not easily available in local languages and considered as an affair of experts. Your comments.
Absolutely, people who are working in this field are part of privileged society. Most of them come from NLUs. So, I understand we are very privileged and that criticism is fair. One aspect of this would be to write your report in the regional language but I don’t think that is enough. We need to include people from different backgrounds. In activism you have people at the grassroot level. Research field is very elite. Now, not only reports in local language will help but including people from a wide domain will also be helpful.
The Interview was taken by Pranav Tanwar (Editor in Chief, Volume V Issue I) and Saurabh Pandey (Publishing Editor, Volume V Issue I)