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Boston bombing: 5 reasons why our police will always let us down

In 1953, India’s first-ever national crime survey had this to say:  “Large scale-recruitment during the last few years in all ranks of police has diluted quality to a large extent, and consequently there has been a fall in the standard of work”.  “There has”, it went on, “been no improvement in the methods of investigation or the application of science to this work. No facilities exist in any of the rural police stations and even in most of the police stations for scientific work”.

I’ve had lots of queries, in the wake of the Boston Police’s rapid success in locating the perpetrators of the attacks in that city, why we’re instead facing backlogs of unsolved crimes and incompetence which has made it impossible for women to walk New Delhi’s streets. This is a reasonable question. There are lots of reasons, but one overarching one: no-one actually cares enough.

1.    The first brutal truth is this: you get what you pay for.  Boston, with a population of 625,000, has a police budget of $330 million. The state of Delhi, with a population of 18 million, has a budget of  4,455 crore, or $823 million. This year, New York plans to spend $4.6 billion on its police—including $323 million on its detective services, $183  million on combatting organised crime, $100 million on training, $64 million on intelligence gathering and $47 million on counter-terrorism functions. The Delhi Police’s budget for 2013-14 is just over half of the $.1.4 billion the New York police will spend on just patrolling their city’s streets alone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can’t get first-world policing on third-world budgets.

Representative Image

India has a lower ratio of police officers to the general population than almost any country of significance. Representative Image/AFP

2.    The second brutal truth is this: our investigation agencies are grossly understaffed. The National Investigations Agency has, according to the MHA’s latest annual report, a staff strength of 388—which, I’m guessing, include substantial numbers of secretarial staff, and a vast retinue of flunkies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has 34,019 staff, of whom 12,979 are agents, or trained investigators. I haven’t been able to find figures for the NIA’s budget, but I’m guessing it is nowhere the $8,118 million the FBI received in the 2012 financial year.

Look through estimates for India’s intelligence services, and you’ll see they’re grossly understaffed, too—especially in core areas involving technology and language-specialist skills.  The headquarters of the IB’s operations directorate in New Delhi—the cutting edge of the organisation’s counter-jihadist operations—makes do with just 30-odd analysts and field personnel.  In 2009, then-Home Minister P. Chidambaram authorised hiring 6,000 new personnel, but the Intelligence Bureau can train only an estimated 600 staff each year—barely covering attrition.

India has a lower ratio of police officers to the general population than almost any country of significance. In 2011, the Union Home Ministry told Parliament it had pushed up the ratio of police officers to the population to 174:100,000, inching towards the global norm of 250:100,000 or more, and up from a painfully-anaemic 121:100,000. It neglected to note, though, that its claims were based on the 2001 census; adjusted for population growth, the ratio is still an appalling 134:100,000.

3.    The third brutal truth is this: the bulk of our police force is made up of not-very-smart people. It is true the average police officer isn’t in the Morgan Stanley race: relatively few people with a choice volunteer for brutal hours and every-day life-threatening risks.  However, contrast the New York officer entrance test, and the Delhi Police’s test (which, alas, you’ll have to pay Rs 30 for the privilege of seeing).  The first involves some fairly tough tests of comprehension and memory. The second is fairly low-grade assemblage of objective-style answers and arithmetic.

Having made it into the police, the average constable is paid peanuts: Rs 27,800, starting, which is less than the Delhi Government’s public relations officers take home. There’s no doubt in my mind who is rendering a more valuable public service.

Indian Police Service officers might have passed one of the most fiercely competitive examinations in the world—but remember, they're picked for their marks, not policing aptitude.  Large numbers—over 50% of each batch—attempt to improve their grades after joining, suggesting, to me at least, that they’re not overly enthused by the job they’ve landed in.

4.    The fourth brutal truth is this: the government doesn’t give a damn. Impressed, for example, by all the big talk about improving coastal defences after 26/11? In 2011-12, the Home Ministry asked all states to “carry out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements”. No, wait, in 2010-2011, they had already “carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements”. No, wait, they’d already “carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard to firm up their additional requirements” in 2009-2010.

There you have it: the most important annual statement of the government’s national security policies cuts and pastes statement from the previous years’ reports. You can find dozens of other examples.

In the north-east states, the most recent MHA annual report states, funds allotted for police modernisation fell to Rs 38.58 crore in 2011-2012, from Rs 171.54 crore.  This was not because these forces had reached a wonderful level of competence, but because the governments simply couldn’t absorb the funds. The solution wasn’t to fix the bureaucracy, but just take away the money.

5.    The fifth brutal truth is this: nothing is going to change. The 1953 report underlined the need for “a better class of recruits” and “forensic science laboratories in all the states of India”. It called for a “refresher course for the investigating officers”, and stated that “a Central Detective Training School is indispensible”. We still don’t have one—though the confidence-inspiring MHA annual report tells us that one will be built in Bhopal.  It emphasised that the “rural police all over India has to be revived and brought back to the same state of efficiency that existed in the twenties”. No-one even has a road map for doing that—let alone dealing with the new challenges for a rapidly-urbanising nation facing unprecedented stresses.

The government, in my opinion, doesn’t give a damn because we don’t give a damn. Political interference is a problem, sure.  There’s a larger problem, though. Indians—at least those with cash in their wallets—simply don’t want a professional police force which can’t be bribed when we’re caught jumping red lights, or our sons drive drunk. We’re just not comfortable with a norm-based criminal justice culture, where you’re judged by what you do, not who you are.

Yep, the real problem is us.

All other Crime in India reports are available at ncrb.gov.in.

NCRB Crime in India 1953