Delhi Police agitation a symptom of nationwide crisis: Overworked, underpaid, understaffed cops contributing to dysfunctional status quo

  • The question Indians need to ask is if society actually wants this dysfunctional status quo to change

  • India cannot survive as a Republic if large swathes of its territory surrender to chronic lawlessness

  • The Delhi Police protests at India Gate give all of us another chance to change course: or pay the price together

In 1954, independent India’s Intelligence Bureau’s concluded its second survey of crime in India, and saw looming chaos: communal violence in Hyderabad, the first since Partition, sparked off by cow-slaughter; growing industrial unrest, growing revolutionary socialist movements; tensions along the border with Portuguese territories in Goa; a staggering 70 policemen killed, and 1,851 injured, 37 of those deaths coming in battles against Man Singh’s bandits in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

“The number of police is insufficient”, it warned. “Control over bad characters has been lost due to various reasons”. “A reassessment of the strength of police in all states”, the report went on. “It is necessary”, it added, “that the service conditions be examined carefully, to decide whether they are attractive enough”.

 Delhi Police agitation a symptom of nationwide crisis: Overworked, underpaid, understaffed cops contributing to dysfunctional status quo

Delhi Police personnel hold a candle light protest at headquarters over alleged repeated incidents of violence against them by lawyers. PTI

Finally, the costs of failing to listen to that advice have come home to Delhi. No one ought mistake the police protesting in India’s National Capital—defying both their service rules and their superiors—as having been angered by a single incident. Being punished for using force while enforcing parking rules against a lawyer might be the spark, but it’s fallen on exceedingly dry tinder.

Delhi’s agitation is part of a pattern of nationwide policing-related crisis. The implosion of the Haryana Police along caste lines in 2016, searingly documented in Prakash Singh’s official investigation; the failure of intelligence services and police to contain violence after the arrest of Ram Rahim Singh; the near-collapse of the state across southern Kashmir in 2018: together, they show the law-enforcement system on which the Indian Republic rests is at breaking point.

First up, there’s this: police forces across the country are treated like animals, not professionals providing a critical service. Leaving aside stand-outs like Maharashtra Police, which has introduced eight-hour shifts, a typical officer’s working day runs to over sixteen hours, with no provision for overtime or compensatory leave. In most states, constables start on a basic salary of ₹5,200, which translates into some ₹25,000 take-home, and do not have guaranteed access to housing, especially in cities.

In Delhi, there’s no system for personnel spending hours on guarding roads where VIPs move, or the protection of the city’s large collection of eminent citizens, to be served cold water on a hot day, let alone given a decent meal, or guaranteed a ride home.

Key to understanding why police forces are overstretched is the stark fact that there just aren’t enough personnel. The United Nations recommends that nation states maintain 250 police officers per 100,000 population, a norm designed for well-ordered societies and states. India has vowed, repeatedly, to move towards that target but has miserably failed.

In theory, things should be getting better. In 2007, Indian police forces were sanctioned 13,34,344 personnel, 4,11,871 of those committed to everyday duties, and 17,46,215 as armed reserves to be used in emergencies. For a projected population of 1.140 billion, that meant 153 police officers for every 100,000 people.

Today, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) statistics show, there are 192 officers sanctioned for every 100,000 of India’s 1.287 billion residents: except there aren’t. Because police hiring has lagged, bogged down by budget constraints, India actually has 150.80 police officers per 100,000 population, below the sanctioned level even for 2007.

Uttar Pradesh should have 185 police officers per 100,000 citizens; it has 127. Telengana should have 218; it has 131. Bihar doesn’t even pretend to aspire to United Nations norms, yet its sanctioned strength of 121 per 100,000 population is far higher than its actual numbers, a pathetic 73 per 100,000.

For all the talk of smart policing and modernisation, most state governments have been reluctant spend cash to fix these problems: And the story doesn’t end there. In 2017-2018, according to BPR&D statistics, India’s states and union territories together spent ₹108,174.88 crore on police forces: up just 1.39 percent in nominal terms. In no states barring Tamil Nadu, Telengana and Delhi did spending on police constitute more than 2 percent of the budget.

This might seem like a lot of money, until you consider global practice: the United States, with a far smaller population, spends over $100 billion year on policing, New York alone will spend $5.6 this year, with $107 million dedicated to training, and another $187 million to intelligence and counter-terrorism. China is estimated to have spent more on internal security than on defence this last decade.

Following three successive years of declining spending on police training, expenditure went up again in 2017-2018, to ₹1,505 crore. But, its worth noting, not a single state spent more than 10 percent of its budget on training its personnel. The bulk of that money was committed to training 124,959 new personnel.

In 2016-2017, the last year for which figures are available, just 44,083 police personnel across the country received any form of in-service training: 0.03 percent of the national police force.

Even in relatively well-administered Maharashtra, scholars Renuka Sane and Neha Sinha have found that “budgets, as they stand, barely allocate funds for operational expenses of running police stations, or maintenance costs for computer systems, arms and ammunition”.

Little spending, the BPR&D actually went into improvising the capability of police forces: combined state and central government spending on modernisation of facilities, the BPR&D records, stood at just ₹7,356.18 crore, or less than 7 percent.

The shortages in the police are part of a system-wide malaise. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has a staff strength of 800, only 600 of whom are executive personnel. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has 34,019 staff, of whom 12,979 are agents, or trained investigators. The two key intelligence services, the Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau, also face personnel deficits to the order of over 25 percent. In specialist areas, ranging from cryptanalysis to languages, the national security establishment’s cupboards are all but empty.

Inevitably, brutality, poor investigation, corruption and incompetence characterise the criminal justice landscape: eroding the legitimacy of law-enforcement, and the law itself.

The question Indians need to ask is if society actually wants this dysfunctional status quo to change. Functional, well-funded law-enforcement systems enforce norms, and norms suit no-one. That isn’t just true of the enormous numbers of state and central legislators facing criminal prosecution, or lawyers who believe they’re above the law.

There’s no shortage of people who’d rather bribe a police officer after jumping a red light rather than pay a big fine, or think torturing suspects is a small price to pay for the early recovery of property stolen by the local junkie.

Politicians, moreover, aren’t the only ones who need to answer for the situation. Top police leadership, ever eager to position itself for top jobs and post-retirement opportunity, has rarely spoken out. No director-general of police or commissioner has, in decades, spoken publicly of the appalling conditions and frustrations of the women and men serving under their command.

The truth, however, is that popular will isn’t the cornerstone of democracies: it’s the rule of law. India cannot survive as a Republic if large swathes of its territory surrender to chronic lawlessness, which is precisely what has been happening for decades. The Delhi Police protests at India Gate give all of us another chance to change course: or pay the price together.

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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2019 21:14:00 IST