The debate on drugs has once again been in the limelight after a spate of high-profile seizures & arrests. However, data from the NCRB’s Crime in India report indicates that COVID-19 has severely impacted the functioning of the police & courts. The pendency rate of NDPS cases in courts crossed 90% by the end of 2020.
The recent arrest of the son of a Bollywood actor on the allegation of possessing drugs & the seizure of 2988 kgs ‘Heroin’ from the Mundra port has once again brought the issue of drugs into the limelight. The performance of enforcement agencies in controlling the illegal trade & usage of the banned substances is also being debated.
In India, the Narcotics Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS) is the relevant law for control and regulation of operations relating to narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. We have explained in detail about the NDPS act in an earlier story. Amidst the current debate on drugs, we look at the trends in the incidence of cases under the NDPS Act and their disposal by the police & courts.
The number of Cases registered under NDPS decreased in 2020
In an earlier story, we highlighted that there is more than a 25% increase in the number of cases registered under the NDPS act during 2017 & 2018 compared to the earlier years. The number in 2019 increased further with more than 72,000 cases registered under the NDPS act. As a result, the crime rate also increased to 5.4 (per lakh population) in 2019 compared to 5 & 4.8 in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
However, as per the latest NCRB’s Crime in India (CII -2020) report, the number of cases booked under the NDPS Act has reduced to 59.8 thousand in 2020 and the crime rate fell to 4 per lakh population. The fall in the incidence of cases under NDPS is in line with the overall decreasing trend during 2020. The COVID-19 related lockdowns and control measures with restrictions on the movement of citizens seem to have had an impact on the trade and consumption of the drugs which meant fewer cases.
Fall in cases in 2020 mainly due to a fall in Cases booked for possession of drugs for personal use
Among the cases registered under NDPS, the general trend has been that the number of cases registered for possession of drugs for personal use is higher than the ones booked for Possession for trafficking.
Even in 2020, the number of cases registered for possession of drugs for personal use is higher than the number registered for possession for purpose of trafficking. However, there is not much difference in the number of cases registered for possession for trafficking between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, 27.1 thousand cases were registered while in 2020 its 26.5 thousand cases.
The reason for the fall in the number of cases registered under NDPS in 2020, is the substantial reduction in the number of cases registered for possessing the drugs for personal use. In 2018. 38.7 thousand cases were registered under this cause which increased to 45.6 thousand cases in 2019. However, it fell by around 27% in 2020 to 33.2 thousand cases. The fall could be attributed to the restricted movement and gathering at public spaces due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Percentage of cases pending with police has increased in 2020
In an earlier story on Police disposal of cases under the NDPS Act, we observed that the pendency of cases with the police reduced over the years. In 2014, the pending cases constituted around 39% of the total cases investigated by police that year, which fell to around 32% in 2018. The trend continued even in 2019, with the proportion of pending cases with the police hovering around 31%. However, this trend was reversed in 2020 with a sharp increase in the proportion of cases pending with the police. The proportion of cases pending with the police crossed 40% in 2020. This increase in pendency is even though fewer new cases were registered in 2020.
In 2019, around 1.01 lakh cases were taken up by the police of which around 67.5% i.e.,68.5 thousand cases were charge-sheeted and sent for trial in courts. The number of pending cases carried forward was around 31.9 thousand. Meanwhile, in 2020, comparatively fewer cases were to be investigated by the police i.e., around 92 thousand. Of these, the police filed the Chargesheet in only about 54 thousand cases. This resulted in a 16% increase in the number of cases pending with police by end of 2020 compared to 2019. While there has been a consistent increase in the number of pending cases, the increase was not substantial and in fact, their share in the total cases investigated was declining. However, in 2020, this trend was reversed as noted earlier.
The pressure on the Police force to enforce COVID-19 related control measures could have affected their regular functioning.
Only around 7% of the cases under the NDPS act disposed by Courts in 2020, less than half of 2019
As per our earlier analysis on Court disposal of cases under the NDPS Act, only around 16% of the cases up for trial in 2018 were disposed by the courts. Out of these, 12% resulted in convictions, and in the rest 4% of the cases, the accused were either discharged/acquitted. Around 84 % of the cases were pending trial by the end of 2018.
In 2019, the same trend continued with minor variations. Despite an increase in the number of cases up for trial in 2019, the proportion of cases disposed by the courts and those that are still pending nearly remained the same as in 2018. However, 2020 presents a contrasting picture.
The total number of cases up for trial in courts increased to 2.72 lakhs in 2020, but the rate of increase was lower in 2020 on account of the lower disposal by police.
Despite this, the number of cases disposed by the courts witnessed a sharp fall. The number of cases resulting in convictions reduced from 32 thousand in 2019 to 14.3 thousand in 2020 i.e., only about 5% out of the total cases up for a trial, compared to 12% in 2019. The proportion of cases resulting in discharge/acquittals also fell from 3.7% in 2019 to 1.2% in 2020. Overall, only about 7% of the cases that were up for trial in 2020 were disposed by the courts compared to 16% in 2019.
The stark reduction in disposal meant that the proportion of pending cases in courts relating to the NDPS act rose sharply by the end of 2020. The pendency rate which was 84% by the end of 2019 increased further to reach 93.5% by the end of 2020. The closure of the courts for a considerable period in 2020 due to the COVID-19 has severely affected their functioning, resulting in increased pendency.
Impact of COVID-19 clearly visible in Police & Court disposal of cases under NDPS act
Even prior to 2020, the high pendency rate of cases registered under the NDPS act raised serious questions about the utility of an act like NDPS and its deterrence effect. Year after year, the pendency rate only increased. However, the year 2020 has worsened the situation to a large extent with the pendency rate of courts crossing 90%.
While it be could be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic was to blame for such an increase, the effects of such an increase would be felt in the years to come with huge backlogs for the courts and the police to clear.
The purpose of the NDPS Act is to have effective legislation to deal with the illicit use of drugs and drugs trade, in addition to being legislation aimed at reformation of the users. The higher pendency defeats the very purpose of having the legislation in place. We have earlier highlighted that possession of drugs in small quantities attracts imprisonment for 12 months and in case of consumption for 6 months. Lengthy trials running into years would be an injustice to the accused in such cases.