Farewell to Himachal's chapter of prisoner reformation



 For Jai Chand and Yog Raj, life imprisonment was different from life behind bars as he walked daily from a jail to manage a book cafe in the state capital.

Ironically, both of them serving life imprisonment at the Kaithu jail near Shimla remained imprisoned outside the jail within the boundaries they had set up for themselves.

But all this changed with the Takka Bench book cafe belonging to the Shimla Municipal Corporation being handed over to a businessman last week for an annual lease of Rs 15.50 lakh.

With this, the state Prisons Department has virtually lost a battle of reformation it started in April 2017 by setting the first-of-its-kind cafe in the country funded by the state's Tourism Department.

It used to open daily from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. At night, the prisoners returned to the jail.

"Curtains for Shimla book cafe", wrote Director General (Prisons) Somesh Goyal, the brain behind reforming the prisoners, in October when the decision was taken to hand over the book cafe to a businessman.

The Prison Department of Himachal will no longer be running the book cafe. It passes on to a businessman, he said in a social media account.

Shimla Book Cafe became a worldwide icon of inmate rehabilitation and an innovative step that other states may follow. Sadly, the icon is set to fall, Goyal wrote.

Later, a division Bench comprising Chief Justice L. Narayana Swami and Justice Dharam Chand Chaudhary, in an interim order on a petition of Jai Chand, had restrained the Municipal Corporation over handing over the cafe to the highest bidder.

Chand contended it was a unique initiative as "the job has really changed my life and I am able to provide my family of four children and a wife, with basic necessities".

He had said 80 per cent of the profits were paid to the Municipal Corporation.

Critics, largely senior citizens and literary figures, say commercial interests prevailed over the social responsibility.

Former Mayor Sanjay Chauhan told IANS that institutions like the book cafe are not created for profit. They are part of social responsibility that help prisoners convicted of crimes rehabilitate and stay part of society.

Octogenarian Ramesh Jaswal, a retired government employee settled in Shimla since the early 1950s, said the visit to the cafe now is just like any other commercial venture.

"We are missing the smile on the faces of the reformed prisoners," he said.

Going nostalgic, another octogenarian Naresh Sud added: "Earlier, a visit to the book cafe reminded us the famed Hindi films 'Karma' that showed convicts being taken out of prison to be reformed. Now, it is missing."

An official letter by the Municipal Corporation says bakery products by prisoners would be accommodated in the new outlet considering the reforms undertaken by the Prisons Department and the Legal Literacy Help Desk would continue to exist in the cafe as per the prevailing practice.

A senior functionary with the Municipal Corporation said a special resolution was also passed by the House that not only the new employer would provide prison bakery items but also employ prisoners.

"Some bakery items prepared by the prisoners are now available, but the prisoners have not been employed so far by the new owner, which is a violation of the contract,a a local councillor, who didn't wish to be identified, told IANS on Sunday.

The cafe, with a seating capacity of 40 and constructed at a cost of Rs 20 lakh, is located right above the Ridge -- once the promenade for the British colonial rulers when this city was their summer capital -- and on the way to the famed Jakhu temple.IANS