Image Credit: Nilima Pathak

New Delhi: Colin Gonsalves is the founder director of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), considered the country’s leading public interest law group. A pioneer in the field of public interest litigation in India, he has successfully fought number of cases for the poor and helpless and set precedents.

Having commenced legal studies in 1979, he litigated his first case while still at law school. This was on behalf of 5,000 workers who were locked out of their jobs. Empathizing with the needy, over the years, he has brought together scores of lawyers to help out the poor without any remuneration.

Gonsalves transitioned his practice from the Labour Courts to the Bombay High Court in 1984 and was designated as Senior Advocate before moving onto the Supreme Court in 2001. Among his most famous cases is the ‘Right To Food’, which involved one of the greatest expansions of Constitutional Rights of the citizens.

HRLN has been working in various fields including, children’s rights, women’s justice, anti-trafficking, criminal justice and prisoners’ rights.

In 2005, Gonsalves was presented the International Human Rights Award by the American Bar Association. In 2010, he was conferred a Doctorate of the University, honoris causa, by the University of Middlesex, UK. And in the same year, he also received the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for social justice.

He speaks to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

GULF NEWS: Is it true that a lot of migrants who come to Delhi for work, have been accused of crimes and put in prisons?

COLIN GONSALVES: Delhi is a city of migrants, who have made their lives here. It is quite possible that some migrants could have actually been involved or implicated in criminal activities. And our focus has been to help these poor people. Very often they are only petty offenders, or first time offenders and many of them are juveniles. A sizable population in the prisons is of those who do not deserve to be there at all. First time offenders who commit a small crime, should be cautioned and let off rather than being put behind the bars. 

Can you cite any particular case of atrocity on such people?

There have been many, including one where a disabled person was tortured, not given proper treatment and food and he died inside the prison. Now, a sub-judicial enquiry is on into his death. Then there was a person accused of a theft of Rs.100. He had been inside Tihar Prisons for many months. Similarly, large numbers of juveniles are in Tihar Prisons, who should not have been there. 

But in accordance with the United Nations child convention, the government had brought children between 16-18 years under the protection of law, which offers them the opportunity to reform and they should be in observation homes?

Yes, but the policemen are happy to put them in prisons and the jailors do not make an effort to find out if the person is a juvenile or not. And often even the judges do not bother. So, though we have very good laws, it is common practice that these are very poorly implemented. 

Of late, there has been a rise in heinous crimes involving juveniles. Do you not think they deserve strict punishment than being sent to a remand home for reformation?

There are 80,000 children on the streets of Delhi and they are victims of criminals. Every young boy is sodomised and every girl is raped. And this does not happen with them once, but several times. But no one cares. People wake up only when these tormented children, in turn, commit crimes. We do not realise that they are also victims of sexual abuse and in many cases the police is the perpetrator.

So when a child grows up, how does he know that sodomising is a crime and it is illegal, if the police, considered enforcers of law, have been doing that. This is the kind of life these street children are subjected to and these are the circumstances they grow up in. It is natural for people who are criminalised and brutalised to inflict the same on others. It is sad that people find it easy to say ‘hang them’ without realising what these children have gone through. 

Is it correct that 80 per cent of inmates in Indian prisons are undertrials, who are neither getting a trial, nor being granted bail?

Speedy trial is a fundamental right, but thousands of undertrials are languishing in prisons. Trials start after 5-7 years after which many are acquitted. But by then they have already lost precious years of their lives for which there is no compensation. The only reason for the delay is that we have just one-fifth of the total number of judges required. The government is not willing to spend on judiciary – to set up more courts or appoint more judges. Recently, six fast courts were set up, whereas the need is for 6,000 courts to expedite the justice system. 

Why is it that prisoners granted bail are still not released from prisons?

These are poor people who cannot afford to pay the bail bond. So, despite getting a bail order, they cannot go out. In such cases, the courts need to be much more lenient in granting bail. The courts are afraid they will run away, but that is not true. And even if 5 per cent of them run away, it does not mean it is better to keep all of them in prison.