Let's ask for more, and better, police

Jan 10, 2012, 07:29 IST | Sushant Singh

Let me recount two New Year Eve conversations. A gentleman, who has lived abroad for too long, was wondering why another guest at the party was so worried over leaving his house in the suburbs of Delhi locked for the night.

Let me recount two New Year Eve conversations. A gentleman, who has lived abroad for too long, was wondering why another guest at the party was so worried over leaving his house in the suburbs of Delhi locked for the night. The gentleman's suggestion that a phone call to the local police should keep the house secure was met with smirks. 

The second conversation was with a lady who wondered about the safety of her 20-year-old son going out for the evening in Delhi. Worried about crime ranging from mugging to carjacking to road-rage to brawls, she speculated about her plight if she had a daughter. After all, Delhi Police asks girls to be accompanied by their brothers for their safety and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit has gone on record asking women in Delhi to dress modestly.

Additional force needed: While the international average of policemen 
per lakh, of the population is 270, India's is at a dismal 133

Although Mumbai may be slightly better, anecdotal evidence suggests that most cities and towns in India are perceived to be unsafe by their residents. No one expects the law and order machinery to prevent any untoward incident. At best, they expect the police to react expeditiously to bring the culprits to justice. 

These perceptions are a clear reflection of the Indian state's capacity, or the lack of it, for ensuring rule of law. India inherited a fairly robust police in 1947. Police is today seen as a coercive instrument of the state rather than as an institution of public servants upholding, and bound by the rule of law. Local police forces suffer from corruption, inadequate training and an unprofessional work ethic. Decayed and in some cases, beyond redemption, the police is justifiably indicted for its poor quality.

But, what about the quantity? Despite a strong push for recruitment over the last three years, the number of policemen per lakh population in India is at 133. The international average is about 270. Many of our policemen are deployed for VIP duties or public events to counter terror threats, further denuding their availability for routine policing. Let's not forget that there is no substitute for the policeman on the beat. He is the gatherer of intelligence, the enforcer of the law, the investigator of the crime and the standard-bearer of the authority of the state, all rolled into one.

These low numbers have a direct impact on the quality of police. The policemen are overstretched, leaving them with little time for proper rest or refresher training. To reduce its burden, the police do not record many cases. Even then, gross understaffing often leads to shoddy investigation by the police, which result in low conviction rates. In 2010, only 9% of the accused were convicted under the IPC in Maharashtra.

Law and order being a state subject in India, the state governments are responsible for police recruitment. Most states eschew additional recruitment because it places a permanent financial burden (salaries, housing etc), which they can scarcely afford. With the rapid growth of central armed police forces -- 116 new battalions have been sanctioned -- states can always bid for central forces for any eventuality. More central forces are however not the answer. The local ties of the civil police provide intelligence and facilitate the development of symbiotic relationships between the community and the government, something not possible with the central forces.

Unfortunately, we have already gone beyond the point of simply building up numbers. Putting more police into a corrupt and ineffective system will only breed more corrupt and ineffective police. If efforts and resources are dedicated solely to expanding the police force, fewer will be available to reform the existing police. Police reforms, as mandated by the Supreme Court, are a must along with, if not prior to, expanding the police force. The system must be fixed immediately, or any expansion will end up doing more harm than good. We need more, and better, police.

Policing is not an electoral issue in the forthcoming assembly elections. Unless the masses and the media bring the spotlight on to police reforms during elections, we can't expect our politicians to move on this crucial subject. Else, the conversations on the next New Year Eve will be the same as those this year.

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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