India’s criminal justice system has an acute backlog crisis, and data on pending investigations and trials published recently by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that this crisis is becoming more severe with each passing year. The backlog or the ‘pendency rate’ with India’s courts and police reached its highest level since the turn of the twenty-first century in 2016, the latest year for which such data is available.

The pendency rate with courts refers to the number of cases for which trial has not been completed, expressed as a share of total cases on trial during the year. In case of police, backlog refers to the number of reported Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes that have not yet been fully investigated.

While the backlog with courts appears much higher as compared to that in case of police, this should not make us conclude that our policemen are more efficient than our judges. There are two reasons why the headline pendency rate for police investigations may be misleading.

Firstly, the pendency rate in case of the police can be affected by the tendency to report crime. In a state with low levels of trust in the police force, pendency rate may be artificially low while in a state with higher level of trust in the force, the pendency rate may be high simply because many more cases may be reported and registered in such a state. Consider the states of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, for instance. The former accounted for a mere 4% of all pending cases with police in 2016, despite accounting for 17% of India’s population. In stark contrast, Delhi accounted for 14% of all pending cases despite a population share of only 1.4%.

“Cases pending for investigation are high as Delhi being the national capital, police officers are more aware about the latest guidelines issued by honourable courts relating to registration of FIRs," said Rahul Dev, an advocate with the Delhi high court.

The other reason behind the relatively lower pendency rate is that policemen may often send cases for trial without adequate investigation. This lowers the pendency rate for the police force while at the same time bumping up the pendency rate for courts.

Tackling the backlog crisis in India’s criminal justice system will require more resources for both the police and the judiciary as India faces an acute shortage of both policemen and judges. High levels of vacancies compound the staffing problem. As of 1 January 2017, the vacancy rate among police officers across the country (civil and armed) was 22%. Uttar Pradesh has the highest vacancy rate, with more than half of sanctioned posts vacant, numbers tabled on the floor of Parliament on Tuesday show.

As the chart below shows, the number of police personnel and judges in India, as a proportion of its population, is far lower than in other major economies.

This also explains why the judiciary is able to dispose of barely one in ten cases in a year. According to the National Judicial Data Grid, one out of every four trials in courts has been pending for more than five years.

The lack of adequate personnel impedes the ability of the Indian state to maintain law and order, and effectively administer justice. This poses a big challenge to Indian democracy and to the Indian economy. The lack of an effective and fast criminal justice system tends to dampen appetite for investments in the country. And the lack of state capacity often encourages people to vote for local strong-men, who bypass formal channels while settling disputes and enforcing contracts in their areas of influence. As the political scientist Milan Vaishnav pointed out in his 2017 book When Crime Pays, such strong-men exploit ethnic cleavages and state failures to gain legitimacy as leaders and defenders of their respective ethnic groups. The preponderance of such leaders in the political system in turn create vested interests against police and judicial reforms.

The one silver lining in the data on trials and investigations is the rise in the rate of convictions among trials that have been completed. The conviction rate, expressed as a percentage of trials completed, has increased six percentage points over the past 15 years to 47% in 2016.

Conviction rate has been particularly high in cases of injury caused due to rash driving. Such cases accounted for one-fifth of all cases that the judiciary disposed of in the three years from 2014 to 2016 and 79% of these completed trials ended in conviction.

However, crimes against women, such as rapes and dowry deaths, continue to see a low conviction rate, of around 20%. The lack of convictions in rape cases is because witnesses often turn hostile, according to legal experts. The conviction rate is also quite low for cases of rioting, as an earlier Plain Facts column had pointed out.

The rise in the headline conviction rate notwithstanding, securing justice in India remains a Herculean task for an average citizen in the country.