– Suhail Sharma*
The Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (‘the MCOCA’) was introduced in the year 1999 in the State of Maharashtra, India. The purpose of the legislation was to prevent and control organised criminal gangs and syndicates which indulge in crime for pecuniary gains or other advantages. Section 5 of the MCOCA, empowers the State Government to establish the Special Courts for the conduct of the judicial business, which includes investigation reporting, bail matters, and trial proceedings for crimes involving organised syndicates. It also reserves the power to determine the jurisdiction of such Special Courts. Section 5(3) of the MCOCA permits State Government in concurrence with the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to appoint the judges of these courts. Section 5(4) of the MCOCA stipulates that a judge appointed to a Special Court must have prior experience of being a Session Judge or an Additional Sessions Judge. In exercise of powers conferred under sub-section (1) read with sub-section (3) of Section 5 of the MCOCA, the Government of Maharashtra, with concurrence of the Hon’ble Chief Justice of Bombay High Court designated Court of District Judge 1 and District Judge 2 as Special Courts under the MCOCA to try cases involving organised criminal gangs.
The MCOCA Special Courts in Maharashtra followed hub-spoke distribution, mostly overlapping to the jurisdiction of police ranges, which included four or five police districts. This distribution was highly centralised whereby the MCOCA court try matters emerging out of multiple districts. The centralised system burdened the Special Courts with heavy caseloads, resulting in poor disposal rates. It also reduced the efficiency of the investigative prosecution agencies dealing with such matters. This distribution also affected witness protection and support system.
This notification of the Government of Maharashtra decentralised the existing hub spoke distribution by empowering the district-level courts to try cases under the MCOCA originating from their jurisdictions. In furtherance to the above notification, the Principal District & Sessions Judge vide office order dated July 18, 2020 directed the Court of District Judge 1 and Additional Sessions Judge, Sangli, District Judge 2, and Additional Sessions Judge, Sangli, District Judge 1, and Additional Sessions Judge, Islampur and District Judge 2 and Additional Sessions Judge, Islampur to try matters instituted under MCOCA arising from their jurisdiction.
This article evaluates the Government of Maharashtra’s initiative of state-wise decentralisation of the MCOCA Special Courts. To substantiate the argument, I analyse the judicial business of the MCOCA Special court, Pune, which caters to five districts of Western Maharashtra, namely, Sangli, Kolhapur, Satara, Pune and Solapur. To further understand the district level perspective, I examine three districts, namely, Sangli, Kolhapur and Satara. Here, I scrutinise the challenges faced by Investigation, Prosecution, and Judiciary in the centralised court system. Upon detailed evaluation of the crime incidences, case pendency, manpower availability, expenditure management, etc, I demonstrate why this reform was necessary and how it will promote the cause of justice.
MCOCA Courts – Hub-Spoke Distribution
The MCOCA courts in Maharashtra followed a centralised model, arranged in a hub-spoke distribution, and largely coterminous to the police jurisdiction under Special Inspector General of Police. The government of Maharashtra notified seven Special Courts under the MCOCA at Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Amravati, and Nashik, which cater to thirty-four police units across the state.
These seven cities act as hubs to police districts, which act as spokes. For example, the MCOCA court, Pune (Hub) conducts the MCOCA matters originating from Pune, Solapur, Satara, Kolhapur, and Sangli (Spokes). The Government of Maharashtra order devolves the judicial powers of the Special Courts from centralised hub cities to decentralised spokes districts.
MCOCA Courts – Judicial Business
The provisions of the MCOCA are invoked under section 23(1)(a), after the prior approval of a police officer not below the rank of Deputy Inspector General of Police. After the approval, the investigation is conducted by an officer, not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police.
It is noteworthy that no court shall take the cognizance of the case under the purview of the MCOCA until there is prior approval of an officer of Additional Director General of Police under section 23(2) of the act. The Supreme Court in State Of Maharashtra & Ors vs Lalit Somdatta Nagpal & Anr stated that “Section 23(1)(a) provides a safeguard to the accused in that notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, no investigation of an alleged offense of organised crime under the MCOCA, 1999 can be commenced without the prior approval of a police officer, not below the rank of Deputy Inspector General of Police. An additional protection has been given under sub-section (2) of section 23 which prohibits any Special Court from taking cognizance of any offense under the MCOCA without the previous sanction of a police officer, not below the rank of Additional Director General of Police.”
The two-step protection as observed by the Apex Court provides for a system of checks and balances to protect the rights of the accused as well as prevent misuse of the law, ensuring that the MCOCA provisions are attracted only in deserving cases.
In Maharashtra, the powers under sub-sections 23(1) and 23(2) are vested with Special Inspector General of Police and Additional Director General (Law & Order) respectively.
Due to the special nature of the legislation, certain provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (‘the CrPC’) apply to proceedings under the MCOCA with modifications. Section 21(2)(a) of the MCOCA provides that police custody of the accused may extend up to thirty days and submission of the final report up to ninety days. Appreciating the complex nature of investigation under the MCOCA, the Special Court under section 21(2)(b) may permit extension of up to one hundred eighty days for the submission of the final report. This extension is contingent on the submission of the report by the public prosecutor, detailing the progress of the investigation. Section 9(4) of the MCOCA empowers the Special Court with all the powers of the Sessions Court, so that trial can be conducted in a manner procedurally comparable to a Sessions trial under the CrPC. It is pertinent to note that under section 10 of the MCOCA, the trial of the accused in the Special Court takes precedence over any other ongoing trial against the accused in any other court.
MCOCA Case Registration – A Trend
The number of MCOCA cases registered has risen substantially in the last few years. Our study focused on the districts of Sangli, Satara, and Kolhapur to assess the rise in MCOCA crimes. Figure 1 above shows trends of an exponential rise in the number of MCOCA cases in these three districts of Maharashtra.
The rise is attributed to Criminal Profiling System for organised crime, where in all criminals with involved in crimes were categorised as per modus operandi, number of offences and gang affiliations. Also, special training modules on the MCOCA were conducted by district police for Station House Officers and Deputy Superintendent of Police in these districts.
Looking at the sharp rise in trend as shown in Figure 1, the shift from centralised Hub Spoke Special Courts to a decentralised system will help in monitoring by the investigative agencies, prosecution support and witness protection.
Organised Crime and the MCOCA Hub-Spoke Court system – A Challenge
While the rise in the number of cases under the MCOCA can be construed as a positive signal in terms of better police capability to control criminal syndicates, the hub-spoke Special Court administration brings in major challenges for law enforcement, prosecution, judiciary, and citizenry.
Manpower and Efficiency
Police forces in India are reeling under tremendous work pressure. Police are involved in crime prevention, and law and order enforcement duties, along with managing cybercrime, intelligence collection, traffic management operations. The efficient execution of these multiple duties warrants adequate human resources and manpower.
Indian police units are severely understaffed. State police forces had 24% vacancies (about 5.5 lakh vacancies) in January 2016. Hence, while the sanctioned police strength was 181 police personnel per lakh persons in 2016, the actual strength was 137 police personnel per lakh, which is much below the United Nations recommended standard of 222 police per lakh persons.
In the year 2019, Sangli Police invested human resources of 460 man-days, i.e., the amount of work that can be done by 460 police persons in one day or one police person in 460 days in executing pre-trial judicial duties of Special Court in twelve MCOCA matters. Here, the investigative agency invested 324 man-days in accused production for bail matters before the Special Court and 136 man-days in the extension of final report submission under section 21 of the MCOCA, respectively.
The potential way to manage efficiency is the decentralisation of Special Courts. It will help in better manpower management and increased efficiency in court procedures. As there will be no need to travel to Special Courts located in Hub cities, the district police will save valuable manpower which may be utilised in the improvement of the public service delivery. It may help in improving the quality of investigation in MCOCA matters as the investigation teams can spend more time in evidence collection, and other investigation related works.
Coordination between the investigative agencies and the judiciary is an important determinant for the smooth conduct of judicial business. These two arms have been conducting judicial business under the CrPC at the district level. With the decentralisation of the Special Court, the same mechanism can help conduct pre-trial and trial proceeding under the MCOCA.
The expenditure incurred by Investigation teams to attend the Special Court proceeding can be broadly categorised under three heads – motor transport, staff wages, fuel.
In the year 2019, investigation teams from Sangli Police attended 12 MCOCA matters at Special Court, Pune. The data reveals that these teams made eighty-two to and fro trips from Sangli to Pune covering a distance of approximately 41,000 km (distance between Sangli to Pune is approx. 250 km) to attend the police custody and investigation extension proceeding at Special Court.
The fuel expenses incurred during such trips amounted to approximately Rs. 5,80,000/-. Here, vehicle maintenance expenses are not included. Also, the government spent approximately Rs 5,50,000/- on staff wages for the conduct of court proceedings in the same year. It is important to mention that these expenses are only related to pre-final report submission in the court. The estimated financial burden for the complete trial will be much higher.
With the decentralisation of Special Court, the requirement of vehicles for attending MCOCA proceedings will significantly reduced. It will unburden the Motor Transport Department of district police, which can deploy these vehicles for law & order, traffic management and patrolling duties, etc. It will reduce the fuel expenditure for the state. The wage burden on the exchequer will reduce as investigation teams will not be able to claim Travelling Allowances to attend to Special Court located within the district.
The overall expenditure saved in the complete course of an MCOCA trial may be utilised to cross-subsidise infrastructure and staffing at the designated Special Court at the district level.
Witness Support and Protection
Section 19 of the MCOCA considers the protection of witnesses as an essential element. The law mandates that the identity and address of the witnesses are not disclosed and that these details are avoided in the orders and judgments of the Special Courts. Confidentiality is necessitated by the fact that the criminals tried under the MCOCA belong to an organised crime syndicate, and have the power to influence witnesses.
In the present hub-spoke court system, the witnesses have to commute long distances to depose before the Special Court. In such scenarios, maintaining the confidentiality of the witnesses becomes a challenge. Once the identity of witnesses is revealed, he and his family can be pressurised by the members of the gang not to depose before the court.
On inquiry into the MCOCA cases in Sangli, it is observed that witnesses are more comfortable deposing in local courts as they remain in the continuous oversight of the local police station. The discomfort faced in traveling long distances on court dates was also one of the reasons for the witness turning hostile. The unwillingness is also associated with the discomfort of traveling to an unfamiliar city, possibly breaching witness confidentiality.
MCOCA Case Pendency and Disposal
The analysis of the MCOCA Special Court, Pune, indicates high case pendency and poor disposal rates. In the year 2019, the court disposed of one case with a standing pendency of sixty-one cases. Figure 2 showcases the trend for the last seven years for pendency and disposal of cases. It can be inferred that the interstice between pending and disposal cases is mainly due to the heavy caseloads and poor staffing at the courts.
In the years 2017 and 2018, only two MCOCA cases were disposed of by the Special Court, Pune. Interestingly, the disposed cases originated from the Pune district itself. This suggests that MCOCA cases originating from the district having Special Courts have higher chances of disposal rate, owing to more effective coordination and follow up mechanisms between the investigation, prosecution, and judiciary within a local jurisdiction.
Pursuant to the order of the State of Maharashtra, Bombay High Court directed all the District Judges of Hub districts having MCOCA Special Courts to transfer the cases under MCOCA to the districts from where it arises. This order of the High Court will result in the redistribution of the MCOCA cases to their original jurisdictions (spokes), thereby unburdening the hubs. Such judicious redistribution will result in better case management making a positive impact on case disposal rates.
The prosecution is instrumental for an efficacious criminal justice system. The need for robust prosecution support in MCOCA cases involving organised crime syndicates can’t be overemphasised.
In district setups, there is a permanent system of Court Pairavi or Court Monitoring teams for the courts within the districts. These teams constitute policemen from local police stations, who support the prosecution and judiciary in case management and witness support. With long years of experience, these teams have developed good expertise in this domain.
The centralised MCOCA Courts catered to multiple districts, many of which are at far off distances. Due to logistical and distance constraints, the local police station don’t have permanent court monitoring teams stationed there. The decentralisation of the Special Court in districts will allow the use of existing court monitoring teams, having the requisite expertise and skills to support the prosecution of MCOCA cases. The teams may serve as a fulcrum between the prosecution and the investigation wing.
To strengthen prosecution support in Special Courts under MCOCA, the State of Maharashtra issued notification dated 17.08.2020 designating 184 Public Prosecutors/ Additional Public Prosecutors at Sessions Courts and Additional Sessions Courts in the twenty-five district of the state as Special Public Prosecutors under the MCOCA to conduct cases under the Act.
The designation of the Special Public Prosecutors under MCOCA for the decentralised Special Courts is a positive measure to further strengthen the prosecution. It will ensure the smooth conduct of judicial business in the decentralised court system.
Movement of criminal gangs
The movement of the members of criminal gangs to attend to Special Court proceedings has risks attached to it. In the year 2018, in a bid to prevent the arrest of a gang member, the other members attacked the policemen and pelted stones on police vehicles of Jat Police station, Sangli. Similarly, in the year 2019, and accused in the MCOCA case registered at Kavathe Mahakal Police station, Jat Division, Sangli fled from the police custody with the help of his gang members. In this case, it was found that the gang members arranged for an escape route and provided the accused with a vehicle, clothes, money, etc. Such attempts to flee put the lives of the police guards at danger.
Although such gangs move in the security of armed police, the possibility of such an incident can’t be negated. Therefore, long exposure to such gangs to public spaces, like roads needs to be minimised. Decentralisation of Special Courts will allow district police, an agency that has familiarity with the local areas to organise better security cordons, controlled movement, and short access to high-security jail facilities, reducing the chances of such escape.
The MCOCA is a pivotal legislation to reign over the gang lords and criminal syndicates. It enforces strict measures against the criminals involved in organised crimes for economic gains or gang supremacy. This paper discussed the various challenges which are faced by the stakeholders due to centralised MCOCA courts.
The paper analyses the reorganisation of Special Courts under MCOCA in the backdrop of the Government of Maharashtra’s Notification to decentralise these Courts. It was found that the decentralisation of such courts will strengthen the cause of administrative and judicial efficiency. The decentralisation of courts shall result in an improvement in the quality of Case Investigation, as more time is available to investigation teams to focus on the investigation of the MCOCA cases. Along with it, the support of district-level Court Monitoring Teams and Special Public Prosecutors may help in extracting convictions against organised gangs.
The decentralisation of courts will ensure better manpower management. It will also save valuable manpower, which may support other police service delivery like law & order duties, traffic management, Summons/Warrants work, etc. It will also help in developing the comprehensive witness support and protection system. The witnesses will not have to travel far distances to attend the trial. Furthermore, support from local police stations will be readily available to them. Such a witness support system may complement the prosecution efforts in the courts.
The decentralisation will result in a reduction in case pendency. The distribution of the judicial business of the Special Courts will provide for more focused attention on the cases. It will also help the courts prioritise cases for timely disposals. The decentralisation may economise expenditure incurred on judicial business by the state. It has been seen that a huge amount is spent on fuel, motor transport, and wages, which may be utilised for the infrastructure development and staff allowances of newly designated district-level MCOCA Special Court.
Crimes under the MCOCA are serious in nature, and involve organised crime syndicates. The availability of legal counsels with expertise in such cases may not be readily available at the district level. Due to the lack of such counsels, the decentralisation of the Special Courts may not achieve its objectives immediately. But, in course of the time, the institutional demand of competent professionals will be met, strengthening the justice system.
The decentralisation of Special Courts is a welcome policy intervention for criminal justice system reforms in Maharashtra. By introducing administrative and judicial productivity, economising resources, reducing pendency-disposal rates, improving conviction rates, this initiative shall improve the public safety index of the state.
* Suhail Sharma is an Indian Police Services (IPS) officer of the 2012 batch. He has served as the Superintendent of Police, Sangli, Maharashtra. Presently, he is posted as the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), Mumbai.
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