It has been more than five years since India and Bangladesh signed a treaty for swapping of sentenced prisoners. But with no progress on the ground, beleaguered authorities in West Bengal, which has almost half of the country’s foreign prisoners – mostly Bangladeshis – are crying for implementing the agreement.
Signed in January 2010, the agreement entails allowing foreigners who have been convicted and sentenced, to serve their prison term in their own country.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), of the 6,000-odd foreign prisoners in India in 2014, 2,935 – including 1,113 convicts – were lodged in various Bengal correctional homes, the highest in the country. Barring a few Nigerians and some Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, the others are all Bangladeshis.
The trend has continued in 2015, with nearly 4000 Bangladeshis lodged in various jails in the state.
As per the latest records of the state correctional services department, the total Bangladeshi prisoner population in the state stands at 3,757, including 175 children.
Considering this, the state correctional services department has been calling for implementing the agreement on swapping convicts.
"It has been more than five years since the agreement was signed but unfortunately nothing has been done at the ground level to transfer the prisoners. Till August this year, at least 1,000 Bangladeshi prisoners formally expressed their desire to serve their term in Bangladesh but the central government is yet to act on this," former Additional Director General of Police (Prisons) Adhir Sharma told IANS.
Sharma, who recently handed over charge, has been batting for some time for the agreement to take effect.
"According to the NCRB estimates, over Rs.25,000 is spent on a single prisoner and considering the large population of foreign prisoners, the state has to needlessly bear approximately Rs.10 crore annually on them, especially when we have the option of sending them to their own country for serving their term," said Sharma.
As the occupancy rates often go beyond capacity in most of the correctional homes, the authorities say the implementation of the agreement was now indispensable.
With many Indians, especially from Bengal, lodged in various Bangladeshi jails, Sharma, who presided over a meeting on consular access for Bangladeshi nationals, also proposed maintaining and exchanging the list of prisoners in India and Bangladesh.
"As per an agreement on consular access, India and Pakistan maintain a comprehensive list of the nationals of the other country under its arrest, detention or imprisonment and it is exchanged twice in the year.
"In the meeting, a proposal was made to the Bangladeshi High Commission representative about a similar agreement. Maintaining such a list will facilitate repatriation and deportation," said Sharma, now the ADG (Telecommunications).
Commenting on the proposal, Bangladeshi High Commission Second Secretary Moushumi Wais said the issue has been raised with the authorities in Dhaka.
"We have discussed the issue. But until and unless a formal proposal is made by India, we cannot act. If and when such a formal proposal is made, we can look towards making it a possibility," Wais told IANS.
The jail authorities also requested the Border Security Force (BSF) to take up the matter with Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB).
"In the flag meetings we have been raising the issue of maintaining and providing lists of Indian prisoners in Bangladesh. But the BGB wants a formal proposal from the central government," said a BSF officer.
A large number of Bangladeshi prisoners are being held for illegally crossing the border.
The BSF has so far nabbed 4,078 Bangladeshis across the state in the year. While most of them have been apprehended for illegally crossing the border, around 200 of them have been arrested for smuggling across the border.
Currently there are 275 Bangladeshi ‘jankhalash’ or prisoners who have completed their term but are still lodged in jails.
Incidentally, there are also nearly 300-odd foreign convicts, including some Rohingya Muslims, who are still languishing in the jails despite having completed their terms.
"As regards the Rohingyas, the centre is yet to take a call on their refugee status. So they have to stay in jail, despite completing their term. In the case of the Bangladeshis, many of them have no place to go back to in their country, and so they are still continuing to stay here," said a correctional home official.