Bharti Enterprises Ltd on Thursday announced a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative to assist under-privileged undertrials, and company chairman Sunil Mittal said he will take a 5 crore pay cut to help fund it.

Nyaya Bharti, which will provide financial and legal aid to undertrials who cannot afford their legal expenses, is said to be the first such initiative by an Indian company.

Mittal said he was inspired by his personal experience of seeing needy undertrials and a speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“What we will do is give a efficient and productive touch to this initiative," Mittal told a press conference. There are close to 280,000 undertrials lodged in some 1,400 jails across the country.

Bharti Enterprises has set aside a sum of 10 crore (including Mittal’s pay cut) per year for the project, which will be run by a separate board, and will establish a screening committee to select deserving undertrials, with help from advocates of law firms like AZB & Partners and consultancy firm EY.

The programme, set to start by 1 April 2016, will be limited to the Delhi-National Capital Region and Punjab initially and will help only first-time offenders and petty criminals.

“We have very carefully chosen the scope and mandate of the initiative… We have to play it safe. The last thing we want is to provide help to a serious criminal who may turn out to be a threat to society," Mittal said.

But even in this category, there is huge scope to help the underprivileged, he said.

“When I went to Patiala court on a personal matter, I saw how privileged I was to be surrounded by not one but three or four of the country’s best advocates while there were so many people languishing in jail because they did not even have access to legal aid or amounts like 5,000 or 10,000," Mittal said.

The programme will provide legal assistance, aid, awareness and literacy to underprivileged undertrials across the country and will also help undertrials by paying their bail and surety amounts in exceptional cases.

Nyaya Bharti will be run by board of directors under the aegis of the philanthropic arm of Bharti Enterprises—the Bharti Foundation. The board includes eminent legal luminaries as well as senior officials of Bharti Enterprises.

The board will be headed by retired Chief Justice of India A.S. Anand. Its members include former solicitor general of India Harish Salve, chairman and editorial director of HT Media Shobhana Bhartia, founder and senior partner at AZB & Partners law firm Ajay Bahl, and chairman of global emerging markets committee at EY Rajiv Memani.

Those working closely with undertrials welcomed the initiative but said some key aspects needed to be rolled out with care.

“The thought is noble and sounds like a great initiative, but the looming question is how will these undertrials be identified?" said Nusrat Khan, a researcher with Amnesty India working on the issue of prolonged pretrial detention and prisoner rights in India.

She said the judiciary, jail and legal aid authorities—three institutions that play an integral role in the timely identification and release of undertrials as per law—often do not work in coordination with each other, especially with regard to the undertrial’s case information and status.

“There is no centralized database of prisoner information. According to our research, there are major discrepancies in the prisoner information held across the three bodies, thus making it nearly impossible for them to be on the same page regarding an undertrial’s case status. Inaccurate and outdated data makes it difficult to identify and secure release of an undertrial who maybe eligible for release under provisions like Section 436A of Code of Criminal Procedure."

Section 436A provides respite for undertrials who have spent more than half of their likely punishment in jail by securing release on a personal bond.

“Digitization of prison records across jails in the country has been ongoing for the last 20 years. Our research reveals that transfer of prisoner information from manual records to a computer system has also led to errors due to lack of trained officials undertaking this job."

“The National Crime Records Bureau–Prison Statistics is the only source of information on the number and demographic composition (age, religion and caste) of prisoners in India. It, however, does not reveal the economic status of nearly 2.8 lakh undertrials or how many of them avail free legal aid services due to financial constraints."