The Supreme Court on Friday refused to entertain a plea seeking decongestion of jails in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde disposed of the petition, with the direction that the Petitioner had the liberty to approach the jurisdictional High Courts for relief in this matter. On 23rd March, the Supreme Court Bench comprising of Chief Justice, Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant heard the suo motu writ petition In Re: Contagion of COVID-19 Virus in Prisons and directed all States and UTs to set up high-powered committees to determine class of prisoners who could be released on parole for four to six weeks. The instant plea, filed by Advocate Prashant Bhushan on behalf of former Dean of IIM-Ahmedabad Jagdeep S. Chhokhar sought for directions to States to provide reports regarding the status of the process of decongestion of prisons. However, the Court was not inclined to hear the matter. CJI observed that directions had to be passed on a State by State basis and that general directions could not be given. The Petitioner was asked to approach the concerned High Courts for specific cases. Bhushan, on behalf of Chhokar, argued that as amicus curiae Sr. Adv. Dushyant Dave was to appear in the main case, i.e. the suo motu writ petition, he could be heard in the instant matter as well. He further submitted that the jails were still overcrowded and that many who were in prison for minor offences had not been released. The CJI, however, objected to this submission by stating that while the argument was understandable, the situation was not the same in all States and therefore, general instructions could not be passed. Bhushan, however, did not agree. He averred, "Yes, it is the same. At this stage, you may ask the States to inform what is happening in their State. How many have been released, how many have not been released and why so. How many undertrials who are in jail for minor offences (under 7 years), how many above the age of 60 have been released?" Bhushan further contended that the matter would be difficult to pursue at the High Court level. "Who will pursue this matter in various High Courts?", he said. The CJI responded that there would be many advocates who would be willing to pursue the matter at the High Court level. When Bhushan insisted for a general direction, the CJI stated, "Will you withdraw or should we dismiss? We would like the advantage of hearing you after hearing the view of the High Court. We are not asking you, specifically, to go to HCs". Bhushan, undeterred, responded that despite the court orders, the high-powered committees, which had been instituted as per the directions of the Supreme Court in the suo motu matter, could consider releasing those charged with minor offences. He insisted on the matter being heard with the main case which is listed on 8th of June. The CJI informed Bhushan, "We are only telling you that variable involved differ from place to place, and the ones you are highlighting are not the ONLY ones that need to be considered. Why don't you understand our point of view on some occasion at least?" In light of the above, the petition was disposed of, with the liberty to approach the jurisdictional High Court.