OB Special

India’s Oldest Convict Is In Odisha’s Koraput Jail; Why Isn’t Balaram Sira Being Released?

Anil Dhir

Koraput: Convict No 7273/A, lodged in the Circle Jail in Koraput, is no ordinary prisoner. At 92, Balaram Sira is the oldest prisoner in the state, perhaps the country. The nonagenarian, who was arrested for murder in March 2013, has been in the jail hospital, on the premises of the 115-year-old British-era jail, for the last few years.

Balaram, a native of Dengapadar village under Borigumma police station, was arrested in 2013 in connection with a murder following a land dispute. He was sentenced to life imprisonment under sections 302 IPC by the Additional District & Sessions Judge, Jeypore on the January 22, 2015. As an undertrial prisoner since March 2013, and later on as a convicted prisoner, Balaram has been in jail for nine and a half years.

Balaram is fighting age-related ailments in the prison hospital with no hope of stepping out alive. The Jail Superintendent, doctors and staff have been taking good care of the nonagenarian, but he is in poor mental and physical state.

The Law department of the Government of Odisha, in the Guidelines of Premature Release 2022, which supersedes the earlier Resolution of 2010, has amended many of the previous rules of the State Sentence Review Board. The three consideration which are to be taken are:

* Whether the convict has lost his potential for committing crime considering his overall conduct

* The possibility of reclaiming the convict as a useful member of society

* Socio-economic condition of the convict’s family.

The Categorization of Prisoners for Premature Release further states the male convicts sentenced to life imprisonment aged more than 65 years and who have undergone an actual imprisonment of 5 years including remand period and a total imprisonment of 7 years including remission shall be prematurely released.

The rules clearly state that old and decrepit prisoners, who are incapable of committing crime, male life convicts aged 65 years and above, and female convicts aged 55 years and above, were eligible for premature release after they complete 60 months of imprisonment.

Despite Balaram having completed 111 months imprisonment (as on date), his name has not been cleared by the advisory board for premature release. Furthermore, the Odisha Jail Manual Rule 840 says that that when a convicted prisoner, in the opinion of a Medical Board, is in danger of death from sickness (not due to an infectious disease) with no hope of recovery within or outside the prison, the Superintendent shall report the fact to the Inspector General of Prisons if it is considered desirable to allow such prisoner the comfort of dying at home.

I have written to the President of India and Chief Justices of both the Supreme Court and Orissa High Court for Balaram Sira’s release, as it does not behove well for the justice system to have such aged persons incarcerated in jails. I have gone to his village, family members of the 92-year-old convict say that he is even older, and is actually 96.

According to Advocate Ajit Patro of Koraput, who highlighted Balaram Sira’s case, the implementation of the criminal justice system rests with three institutions police, courts and prisons. With a ratio of 144 police officers per 100,000 citizens, the police-to-population ratio is much lower than the United Nations’ recommended 222 per 100,000 citizens. Courts in India at all levels (district, High Courts and Supreme Court) have a cumulative backlog of over 3.5 crore cases.

Dr Biswajit Mohanty says that Indian jails are overcrowded, housing more than 4.6 lakh prisoners at 117% occupancy. Notably, almost 70% of these prisoners are undertrial prisoners, that is, those who haven’t been convicted yet. As per data available with National Crime Records Bureau, the central jails are operating at 121% occupancy and district jails at 132%.

Of its total population, more than 3.15 lakh prisoners are undertrial prisoners. Overcrowding is primarily attributable to the disenfranchised poor undertrials, who are languishing in jail due to their inability to pay bail. The Government spends a considerable amount of the taxpayers’ money on keeping these individuals incarcerated. In this background, it may be advisable to release those who are on trial for petty crimes; and where it is apparent, that there would likely be no ‘real’ trial.

The criminal justice system is an integral part of the democratic setup. Therefore, it is imperative that comprehensive steps are taken to make the system more effective. Otherwise, it will be a shame on our democracy to keep a mentally and physically decrepit nonagenarian in jail, till his death.

Anil Dhir

Researcher & Columnist

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