It goes without saying that the district judiciary in India receives relatively less attention compared to the higher judiciary despite being burdened with the largest share of litigation. Often filling up judicial vacancies is touted as the one stop solution for the pendency woes of the judiciary. However, owing to the lack of existing courtrooms, it so happens that the judiciary is not able to fill vacancies up to its sanctioned strength. This glaring reality has come to the fore recently when the Supreme Court took up suo moto cognizance of the poor state of physical infrastructure as well as judicial manpower in the lower judiciary. The District Judiciary has only 17,817 courtrooms available for itself against a sanctioned strength of 22,750 judges, leaving a shortage of approximately 5000 court halls. The number of court halls owned by the judiciary is even lower, standing at a 15,042 with the remaining being rented.
To build courtrooms and residential units for the judicial officers, there is a requirement of significant capital expenditure, which historically states were unable to afford. Therefore, in 1993, the Centre launched the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Development of Infrastructure Facilities for the Judiciary (CSS) under which as of May 2018, the Centre has released Rs. 6100.24 crores. Further, Rs. 650 crores have been released in 2018-19 and Rs. 710 crores is expected to be released in 2019-20 adding up to a total of Rs. 7460.24 crores since its inception. Since 2011, when the allocation under this scheme shot up, only district and subordinate judiciary is covered under the Scheme and High Courts have been excluded from its purview. In addition to this expenditure by the Central Government, even State Governments have contributed their share towards the Scheme.
Given that the period of the Scheme ends in March 2020 and a significant amount of money has been released for it by the Centre and the state governments, we at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy decided to undertake a study to evaluate the performance of the Scheme. A copy of our report can be accessed over here. The analysis is based on the official information released about the Scheme in the public domain. The correspondence between the state functionaries and the Department of Justice regarding the implementation of the scheme were sought under the RTI Act to substantiate the findings.
The Design of the Scheme and Problem in Allocations Between States
The Department of Justice (DoJ) is oversees the execution of the Scheme. Like all Centrally Sponsored Schemes, this Scheme requires the Centre and State governments to jointly contribute funds for the specified purpose. Currently, the funding pattern of the Scheme is 60:40. As per the guidelines issued by the DOJ, the states are required to prepare an action plan describing the projects, along with the required funds, which the State Governments intend to undertake within the next year. Then based on the outlay available with it, the Centre releases 60% of the funds to the States and the State Governments are required to pump in their matching 40% share. This sharing pattern is at 90:10 for North-Eastern and Himalayan States.
Issues at the level of the Centre
The Scheme in its design does not include adequate transparency and accountability mechanisms.
As a result there is no clarity about the outcomes of the large amount of public money dispersed under the Scheme. While the DoJ has some record of the existing infrastructure, it cannot authoritatively state the number of buildings that were constructed under the Scheme. We specifically asked for this information under the RTI Act but were not provided the same. It is difficult to assess the success of the Scheme in absence of this data.
The one limited measure adopted by the DoJ to monitor the Scheme is the development of the online Nyaya Vikas Portal in collaboration with ISRO. Its objective is to geotag judicial infrastructure and maintain a record of the funds utilized. This requires data to be entered manually by surveyors, moderators and nodal officers appointed by the States. Like many of the government's new information portals, the Nyaya Vikas Portal is password protected thereby restricting access to the information to only a few appointed persons.
We also suspect that the information on the portal has not been populated. In response to an RTI application, we learned that the DoJ did not have a record of the persons appointed by the state governments for populating the portal with the required information. Given that the terms of the Scheme are decided by the Centre and it takes ownership of the Scheme, it is unlikely that the states will feel incentivised to take necessary steps with respect to the portal.
Problems Faced by the State Government in Executing this Scheme
While the Centre lays down the guidelines for the release of funds under the Scheme, it falls upon the state agencies such as the High Court, Law Department and the Public Works Department to undertake the execution at the ground level. This involves timely coordination and effective communication to avoid time and cost overruns. However, like most other Schemes of this nature, coordination is poor and in our inspection of the correspondence between the states and the centre, we found several instances of delays resulting in cost implications.
Moreover, it appears that certain states have failed to understand how the funding pattern under the Scheme works. As stated earlier, the Centre allocates the money based on the outlay available with it. However, some states presume that they are entitled to receive 60% of the entire cost projected in their action plan from the Centre and undertake this expenditure. They record the difference in the two figures as funds owed by the Centre to the state governments, while in fact the Centre does not owe them this amount. This skews the account books of the states.
Need for a Survey & Audit
In our report we recommend that the DoJ should carry out a well-designed nationwide survey which adequately measures the shortfall in number of courtrooms and residential units required for the judiciary and the condition of existing court infrastructure. We further recommend that the DoJ should request CAG or other independent bodies to conduct a nationwide review of this Scheme before making any decision to continue funding it. This is a minimum requirement to obtain a realistic picture of the state of affairs of the judicial infrastructure of the country.
The CSS for Judicial Infrastructure is a well-intended Scheme that has been in existence for 26 years now. However, the lack of adequate planning has resulted in design flaws, procedural inefficiencies and poor accountability. If the Scheme is to be continued beyond 2020, it is imperative that these concerns are taken into consideration after a thorough fact finding exercise.
Tarika Jain and Shreya Tripathy are Research Fellows at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal