An old man on bail

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A 77-year-old man is on bail for something that transpired 27 years ago! And he is not alone, there are many others like him. His story highlights the need for speedy disposal of cases and a fresh look at the manner in which investigations are conducted in our country

Last week I met a venerable gentleman, a retired railway officer — 77 years old to be precise, who said to me “I’m on bail.” I thought I had misheard but felt embarrassed to ask him to repeat the word “bail”. But I had heard right. He was on bail for something that transpired 27 years ago. The facts made a sad story: The investigation had started in 1988 — six years after the “misconduct” and five years after the man’s retirement. His crime was to have forwarded a Government letter “for processing” where money making was not alleged against him. The investigation took four years by which time it was 1992. The chargesheet was filed three years later, in 1995; the court took cognisance of the case after another three years in 1998. It is now the year 2010 and the matter is before the court for the last 11 years, where a decision is yet to be taken on whether or not prosecution sanction was necessary, for an act committed in the discharge of official duty, 27 years ago.

As I looked at my companion’s wisened face and tired eyes I felt a sense of abhorrence and anger at a system which could permit this farce to go on. The merits of the case did not interest me, but the possibility that a case could be started five years after a man’s retirement and could continue for more than 22 years thereafter, with no end in sight, stunned me.

What then are the facts about investigations by CBI and their disposal by the courts? A glance through the CBI’s latest annual report gives information which is quantitatively impressive but qualitatively disturbing. The CBI has three distinct divisions, one for anti-corruption, one for economic offences and the third for investigation of special crimes which include terrorism, bomb blasts, sensational murders and the underworld mafia. The anti-corruption division handles three quarters of the cases.

The conviction rate of CBI cases is a respectable 66 per cent. But the picture changes if one looks at the disposal by the courts. In 2008 there were over 9,000 CBI cases pending in court of which three quarters related to corruption cases. With the CBI registering around 900 cases in a year and the courts disposing off around 600, this backlog, far from abating, is mounting. My old man’s case would be one among those 9,000 pending cases and as cynics say, such cases will automatically get resolved when the individual eventually dies in the struggle.

Several systemic changes are taking place in CBI and evidently many heads are at work to improve the organisation’s professionalism and output. But unlike most organisations that are regularly combed through by watchdog committees and commissions, CBI seems to remain insulated from objective external oversight. It is strange that the Administrative Reforms Commission was precluded from suggesting reforms in the CBI, when this should have been a fundamental term of reference for the ARC. Apparently, some other commission was to look into CBI’s working, but if anything has been started or completed it is not widely known.

As an interested bystander and a person who has seen the functioning of the anti-corruption branch of the Government of Delhi during my career, (and CBI’s anti-corruption division is only a superior version of the same thing,) my suggestions hinge on the following premise: Since all CBI cases are criminal cases they cannot be closed by the investigating officer and require the approval of the court. If my old man’s case could linger in court for the last 11 years without even a chargesheet being filed, surely there would be scores of similar cases which might be meandering around aimlessly? An individual investigating officer cannot even recommend closure, because his interest in doing so would be questionable. What then should be done?

Looking at the size of the problem, it would be in everyone’s interest to set up a Review Board under the CBI Act. The board could consider all cases where a chargesheet had not been issued by the court even after five years of the institution of a case. The Review Board would have the benefit of examining a written report on the likelihood of the case leading to conviction. In cases involving a serving Government officer, if the charge has not been issued within five years of the case being instituted, such cases should be reviewed and closed.

In the case of retired officers, if the man has crossed 70 and the chargesheet has still not issued, the case should be closed. After all one gives amnesty to approvers and sentence remission to murderers and rapists. On the same principle why not request the court to close the case if the accused has crossed 70 and has not even been charged by then? It might leave CBI investigators and prosecutors with time to concentrate on more imperative demands on their time.

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