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Why Does Lakshadweep Need a Fifth Jail Despite Having Lowest Prison Occupancy Rate in India?

Ayaskant Das |
The 6% prison occupancy rate of Lakshadweep is the lowest among all states and union territories in the entire country. Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, in stark contrast top the chart with occupancy rates of 174.9% and 167.9%, respectively.
The 6% prison occupancy rate of Lakshadweep is the lowest

New Delhi: Notwithstanding the fact that Lakshadweep has the lowest prison occupancy rate in the entire country, the Union Territory’s administration has planned a new jail for the archipelago.

Lakshadweep’s administration had floated tenders on October 21 for the construction of a new jail at a cost of over Rs 25 crore despite the fact that the Union Territory also has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

Lakshadweep has four existing jails (sub-jails with a total capacity for 64 persons) in which only four undertrial prisoners were lodged as of December 31, 2019, as per prison data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

In the Union Territory, a section of the local population – nearly 97% of them are Muslims as per Census of India 2011 – fear the increased jail capacity would be used to detain illegal immigrants after the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is compiled for Lakshadweep. Other sections of the population, including lawmakers and lawyers, term the project as inessential, meant only to spin off public money through contractors and middlemen. The administration, on the other hand, terms the project as indispensable given the absence of a district jail for the archipelago ever since the Independence of the country and the increase in incidents of the “breakdown of law and order” in the past few months.

The proposed jail project is the latest addition in the Lakshadweep model of development that has been mooted by its administrator Praful Khodabhai Patel. Given the fact that Lakshadweep has the lowest jail occupancy rate in the country, an infrastructure project of this magnitude has been conceived only to help the rulers and their cronies in the process of swindling public money,” Mohammed Faizal, sitting Lok Sabha MP of Lakshadweep belonging to the Nationalist Congress Party, told Newsclick.

The 6% prison occupancy rate of Lakshadweep is the lowest among all states and union territories in the entire country. Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, in stark contrast top the chart with occupancy rates of 174.9% and 167.9%, respectively.

As per the latest available data of NCRB, all four prison inmates in the four sub-jails of Lakshadweep, as of December 31 2019, are Muslims by faith who also belong to Scheduled Tribe communities and none of them has been convicted yet. All four undertrial prisoners are male, aged between 18 and 50 years and have been accused of violating Special and Local Laws. While none of the four undertrials was being tried under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), all of them have been incarcerated for periods less than five years each.

Prison occupancy rates in Lakshadweep have always been abysmally low. The total number of inmates in the four prisons was just 1 as of December 31, 2018, again the lowest among all states and union territories across the entire country for the previous year as per NCRB data.

The project is largescale and is disproportionate to the population and crime rate of Lakshadweep. Moreover, there are a few dwelling units on the land which are being acquired by the administration for the jail project. It will result in the displacement of the population residing in that area. At the end of the day, the project will serve no public interest except for lining the pockets of a few contractors and middlemen,” said a local lawyer, Faseela Ibrahim.

The jail will be located in Kavaratti, the administrative headquarters of the Union Territory which is also the most developed island from amongst the 36 islands of the archipelago. The total capacity of the new jail will be over 50 for the total population of Lakshadweep which stands at 64,473 in the 10 inhabited islands of the archipelago as per data of the Census of India 2011. As per NCRB 2020 data, the Union Territory recorded 48, 123 and 107 cases of crime under the IPC in the years 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively. Similarly, crimes recorded under Special and Local Laws stood at 29, 59 and 40, respectively, for these three years.

In this scenario, what could be the possible logic behind adding another jail to this tiny Union Territory? It could be for detaining people identified as illegal immigrants following the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Alternatively, the majoritarian central government could be planning to deport political prisoners from the mainland to the vacant jails in Lakshadweep,” said Ajas Akbar, an activist of the National Students’ Union of India, the student wing of the Congress.

What has changed in Lakshadweep Islands, which was once known for its peace and tranquillity, in the recent past? Despite the low crime rate in the Union Territory, its administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, known for his proximity to prime minister Narendra Modi, introduced a Goonda Act (Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act, 2021) in April this year giving himself sweeping powers to detain people for prolonged periods of time without having to file a charge-sheet in court.

The Goonda Act was among a slew of legislations introduced by Patel, apart from a strict regulation on storage, transportation and consumption of beef in the Muslim-dominated Union Territory, in a ‘shock therapy’ unleashed upon Lakshadweep by his administration in the thick of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2021.

An Act was also introduced by Patel effectively empowering the administration to take away land belonging to locals at the cost of large-scale mass migration. There have been massive protests, some of them led by opposition political parties, against Patel’s attempted makeover of the Union Territory by enacting a slew of rules and regulations.

Widespread resentment was witnessed in Lakshadweep after Patel decided to do away with the liquor ban which was earlier prevalent across most parts of the Union Territory. Patel was also blamed for being instrumental in increasing the number of COVID-19 positive patients in the Union Territory during the second wave because he had lifted the ban on entry of outsiders to the islands and instead had allowed entry for anyone carrying a negative RT-PCR test result. Protests were held across the islands against changes effected by the administration in Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) meant to prevent the spread of the Covid virus.

So, is the prison capacity of the Union Territory being increased to restrain dissenters whose numbers have increased as a response to Patel’s model of development for Lakshadweep? There is no clear answer.

There have been instances in the recent past where we have found difficulty in detaining large numbers of people during incidents of the breakdown of law and order. In January this year, for example, we had detained more than 30 people who were protesting against the newly framed Covid SOPs in the Union Territory. There was no single place to detain them together. So, they had to be accommodated in community centres or schools. Besides, the Union Territory does not have a district jail of its own to this date. The new complex will have all the facilities and systems that are required in a prison,” Lakshadweep district collector S Asker Ali told Newsclick.

Ali further confirmed that the new district jail of Lakshadweep will not be used to incarcerate political prisoners from other parts of the country.

India has a robust three-tier judicial system in place. Fears that political prisoners will be deported to Lakshadweep are unfounded. A jail will also serve as a deterrent to all the troublemakers,” he added.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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