India jails hospital staff for 'embezzling' 23 cents

NEW DELHI (AFP) - An Indian court has sentenced two medical workers to a year in prison for embezzling 11 rupees (23 cents) in public funds more than 25 years ago, lawyers said on Thursday (Nov 26).

The two - a nurse and a medical assistant - were found guilty of inflating the number of sterilisation procedures they helped to perform in 1989 to boost their earnings.

At the time, the government was providing financial incentives for medical workers to persuade men and women to undergo sterilisation under a controversial scheme to curb population growth.

The anti-corruption court in the northern city of Meerut held 185 hearings before reaching a verdict on former nurse Noor Jahan and assistant Shobha Ram, who both retired a decade ago.

Defence lawyer Virender Kumar accused the court of a "lopsided" judgement and said he would appeal.

"We have scamsters who loot millions of rupees from the government but are never punished. And here is a court which jails two people for 22 rupees," he told AFP by phone.

"They have spent more than three lakh (300,000) rupees on fighting the case and on attending court hearings.

"We will certainly appeal against the lopsided judgement."

Under the scheme, the government paid 181 rupees for each sterilisation, with the bulk of the money going to the person undergoing the procedure.

The nurse and the medical assistant received just one rupee for each operation.

Investigators initially accused five hospital staff in the case including the surgeon, but three of them died during the trial.

Hearings only began in 1998 because it took seven years to complete the investigations.

India's justice system is notoriously slow, with critics blaming a shortage of judges and unnecessary lawsuits for causing delays in trials and creating a huge backlog.

Estimates suggest it would take 320 years to clear the backlog of 31.28 million cases pending in various Indian courts.

There are more than 4,500 vacancies for judges according to the law ministry, which critics say makes the Indian justice system notoriously sluggish and inefficient.

Prosecution lawyer Devki Nandan Sharma said the court had been lenient as the charge can carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

"We had enough evidence of their guilt and we are satisfied with the court verdict," Sharma told AFP.

"It certainly took a long time, but justice has to be done."