How authentic is our crime data?

Last week, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram released Crime In India-2010, a report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which compiles and analyses crime statistics in India for the year 2010. At present, this report is the only authoritative source of information about crimes in the country.

It tells you that Maharashtra recorded 189.2 Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes per lakh of population in 2010, against a national figure of 187.6. Despite reporting the highest incidence of IPC crimes (33,932) among all police districts in the country, Mumbai had a crime rate of 207.3 crimes per lakh of population. But against an all-India conviction rate of 40.7 per cent, only nine per cent of the accused were convicted under the IPC in Maharashtra.

Under the radar: Crimes often go unreported, or are not registered by
cops, giving the false impression that crime rates have dropped

However, these statistics have severe limitations, as all crimes are not reported to the police, and if reported, many are not registered by the police. This under-reporting of crime data has been validated in a study by an Indian Police Service officer, Tripurari, in Policing without Using Force: The Jalpaiguri Experiment. As the Superintendent of Police in Jalpaiguri, he made registration of FIRs mandatory at the 17 police stations of the district. Outcome: the monthly average of the number of recorded cases jumped from 249 in the pre-experiment phase to 1,060.

The study, published in the Indian Police Journal in 2010, asserts that major offences (such as theft of automobiles, murder or dacoity) are "less susceptible to suppression or minimisation" because these are widely publicised. The degree of suppression of crime, or burking in police parlance, is more prevalent in the case of minor crimes like petty thefts. But burking is not unique to Jalpaiguri or Bengal.

It is rampant all over India.The international rights group, Human Rights Watch, has noted that "despite legal obligations under Indian and international law, police throughout India frequently fail to register complaints of crime." It cited the Lucknow police, which had reportedly registered FIRs for only 4.5 per cent of the complaints they received in 2007.

This when you thought that the Jalpaiguri experiment -- where only 24 per cent of the crime was found to have been recorded -- was shocking. The problem of burking can be overcome by an independent, third-party verification of the NCRB data. In most developed countries, an annual Crime Victimisation Survey is conducted to provide a more realistic  picture of crime -- estimate the number and types of crimes not reported to the police, identify people most at risk, and map public attitude towards crime and towards the criminal justice system.

These surveys are found to be a very important source of information about crime levels and public attitude to crime. In 2005-06, only 42 per cent of crimes reported during the British Crime Survey (BCS) were reported to police, and only 30 per cent were recorded by the police. BCS thus provides the British government with an  alternative to police-recorded crime statistics.

Without BCS, the British government would have no information on the 70 per cent of crimes which went unreported. BCS further identifies those most at risk due to different types of crime. This is used to design and inform crime prevention programmes and improve public attitude towards police.

Information underpins all planning. An empirical approach towards policing can be sustained by reliable and comprehensive data on crime. In the absence of authentic data, all attempts at planning for policing in India are an exercise in futility. A survey to ascertain the real state of crime in the country by conducting an annual crime survey has to be topmost on the government's agenda.

Starting  with the 35 biggest cities in the first phase, National Statistical Survey Organisation is best suited to undertake this survey in India. Till that happens, the official crime data will continue to paint a rosy picture. And the vision of transforming data into information, and information into insight shall remain a pipe-dream.

Sushant K. Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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