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At around 11 o’clock last Saturday morning, Aryan Khan, the eldest child of Hindi film superstar Shah Rukh Khan, walked out of the Arthur Road Jail in Central Mumbai. His arrest, bail application and subsequent release, had brought to attention quite a few things that are wrong with the Indian legal system. One thing that has received immense attention in the media is the proportion of under-trials in Indian jails.

As per the Prison Statistics India 2019, as of 31 December 2019, the total number of prisoners in various jails across the country stood at around 478,600. Of these, 330,487 or 69.1% were under-trials. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had the maximum undertrials, 73,418 and 31,275, respectively. These individuals are in jail for suspected law violations. Nonetheless, they are innocent until proven guilty.

The other bit that has been highlighted in the media subsequent to Khan’s bail application being accepted is how a bail order travels from the court to the jail. It is moved physically. This, in a country where everything from festival shopping and paying a few rupees for a purchase from a roadside vendor to paying lakhs of rupees as annual taxes can be done digitally.

Of course, these issues have been around and have intermittently been highlighted in the media, but have rarely received the kind of focused attention that they have now. The trouble is that every other under-trial stuck in Indian jails is a statistical life, whereas Khan is what psychologists and economists like to call an ‘identified life’.

The American economist Thomas Schelling offers an interesting example to explain the difference between a statistical life and an identified life. As he writes in Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts [an American state] will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their cheque books."

Just statistics don’t make people empathize with something. Because if that was the case, every year many “unidentified" lives wouldn’t be lost for the lack of such basic things as mosquito nets, or clean water for that matter. As the French economist Jean Tirole writes in Economics for the Common Good: “A single identifiable victim may affect many more minds than millions of anonymous victims."

Tirole offers the example of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old Syrian child who was found dead on a Turkish beach in 2015. His photograph went viral. As Tirole writes: “[This] forced us to pay attention to a situation it would have been more comfortable to ignore. It had much more impact on Europeans’ awareness of refugees than the statistics about the thousands of migrants who had already drowned in the Mediterranean."

Tirole offers another example of the 1972 photo of “Kim Phúc, a Vietnamese girl burned by napalm running naked down a street". This one picture brought more attention to the uselessness and the mindlessness of the Vietnam War than all the statistics could possibly have.

When it comes to India, perhaps the best example of an identified life is Mukesh Harane. He was addicted to gutka and died of oral cancer in October 2009. He became the face of the anti- tobacco message that was delivered all across India through an audio-visual campaign which was shown regularly in cinema halls for many years. The campaign visuals were really gruesome and went a much longer way in establishing the ill-effects of consuming gutka than statistics could possibly ever have.

So, the question is why do people relate better to identified lives than to data? Tirole writes: “Psychologists have identified our tendency to attach more importance to people whose faces we know than to other anonymous people."

A face also helps people focus on an issue. In a country like India, there are many things that are wrong and need the empathy and attention of people, but people have limited time and attention spans. Hence, the moment a face gets associated with an issue or injustice, people identify with it much more than they otherwise would.

To conclude, as of December 2019, India had 5,011 under-trial prisoners who had been confined behind bars for more than 5 years. As Prison Statistics India 2019 points out: “The highest number of such undertrials prisoners were reported from Uttar Pradesh (2,142) accounting for 42.7% of such undertrials prisoners."

Of the total 330,487 under-trials, close to 49% were up to 30 years of age. Further, 94,533 were illiterate and 134,749 were educated to a level below class tenth. Their lack of education could be one reason why they continue to be in jail.

In that sense, Khan’s arrest and later release have drawn some much-needed attention to the fate of hundreds of thousands of jailed under-trials across India. But the question is, will it lead to the number of under-trials in Indian jails coming down? Let’s keep track.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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