The number of undertrials is at a historic high and comes at a time when vacancies in the judiciary -- across the lower courts, high courts, and the Supreme Court -- remain high.
The number of people languishing in the country's prisons while undergoing trials rose 26 per cent between 2016 and 2020 to touch 371,848 -- taking up 90 per cent of the total prison capacity of 414,033.
A quarter of these have been behind bars for at least a year.
The year 2020 is the latest for which the number of undertrials is available.
The number of undertrials is at a historic high and comes at a time when vacancies in the judiciary -- across the lower courts, high courts, and the Supreme Court -- remain high, leaving the system to grapple with just 14.4 judges for every one million population as of April 1 this year, a small fraction of the 210 judges per million in Europe and 150 in the United States.
Eighteen years ago, the Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System, headed by Justice V S Malimath, had recommended raising India's judge strength to 50 per million.
Last month, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju spoke of the 50 million pending cases before India's law courts and suggested the target of settling 20 million in two years. The minister was addressing the 18th All India Legal Services Authorities Meet in Jaipur.
Speaking at the same event, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana attributed the pendency to the vast number of vacancies in the judiciary, and insufficient infrastructure.
Vacancy indeed runs high. There are 24,521 sanctioned posts in the lower courts, of which 5,180, or 21 per cent, are vacant.
In the high courts and the Supreme Court, 34.4 per cent of the sanctioned strength of 1,108 is vacant.
To achieve the law minister's target of 20 million cases settled in two years, each of the 20,068 judges in the country, across the hierarchy of the courts, will have to settle 499 cases a year.
That might look to be a tall order given the pendency of cases.
The lower courts are dealing with 42 million open cases, says the National Judicial Data Grid.
There are another 5.9 million cases before the high courts, and 72,062 before the Supreme Court.