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Law & Order - A crisis waiting to happen

It’s 9.00 PM in Delhi, somewhat after the peak traffic rush hour. A motorist pulls up at a traffic light near Pragati Maidan, the exhibition grounds beside the Old Fort. A motorcyclist brushes past and knocks off a side mirror of the motorist’s car. There is a lowering of windows and a heated exchange – commonplace in a busy metro. Then, quite abruptly, the motorcyclist pulls ahead, blocking the motorist’s path, draws a handgun and fires point-blank through the car’s windscreen. The bullet hits the motorist on the left shoulder. No one bothers to help and the motorcyclist pulls away. The incident receives a three inch column in the middle pages of the local papers. More recently, a retired army officer gets shot in the groin similarly by a bunch of hoodlums who manage to escape. Another woman is fatally shot next to her car. These incidents receive better coverage.

Delhi would probably rank amongst the world’s most unsafe cities. Shooting incidents are common and the drawing of weapons is even more frequent. I too have been through this ghastly experience at 6.00 AM one morning at a traffic intersection only a few months ago. Seldom are such incidents reported to the police and even more rarely are the culprits ever caught.

The fact is, Delhi’s population is growing by over 5% per annum. The strain on limited resources creates tremendous pressures both socially and on the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Road rage is one expression of these pressures. Petty crime and physical violence are even more recurrent. The police service is understaffed and frankly, helpless to respond effectively. Rarely do individuals who have been harmed even bother to file a complaint, often due to indifference on the part of the investigating agencies.

A large chunk of the Delhi Police Service is dedicated to the security needs of politicians and other VIPs. The maintenance of general law and order is not priority. This is a dangerous trend, which runs the risk of slipping very quickly into a serious crisis. The government needs to clamp down much harder with a zero tolerance policy if this decline is to be arrested. But recurring political interference has already demoralised a fine force into embarrassing mediocrity - and a frightening state of indifference.

Police services in each state are constituted in a manner that they are ultimately accountable to respective state governments, with the Chief Minister/Home Minister as the final authority. In Delhi, the structure of reporting is different, which only worsens this ‘fiefdom’ like situation. The service is under the jurisdiction of the central government, despite the city having been granted some sort of state-hood with a duly elected government. Oddly, the police service remains regulated by the Police Act of 1861 which is completely out-dated. Drafted with a totally different set of objectives, the Act can no longer apply itself effectively in a society meant to be governed on democratic principles. Some reform measures were indeed proposed a few decades ago with the establishment of a National Police Commission, 1979 . Chaired by an eminent individual - Dharam Vira, ICS (previously Secretary of the Cabinet and then Governor of Bengal) the Commission examined the functioning of the service in thorough detail and offered recommendations for reform, some of which still appear relevant today. For instance, the final report recommended that the State Chief Minister as the final arbiter of the police should be replaced by a Security Commission comprised of state leaders including the Leader of the Opposition; a judge of the High Court together with eminent local citizens. This simple measure would remove substantially, if not eliminate completely, political meddling by the government of the day. Clearly, no politician was prepared to accept this. The police service provides the essential structure through which politicians wield their authority and vested interests override logic.

The Police Commission, 1979 had examined several other issues and offered suggestions for reform in areas such as police-public relations; equipment and procurement; human rights protection; recruitment etc. The government at the time accepted some peripheral suggestions that only brought about cosmetic changes, leaving the bulk of what would constitute serious reforms entirely untouched.

In succeeding years, excessive political interference in Delhi and elsewhere has led to falling standards as it obstructs the course of the functioning of the police force. Recruitment is the first area to be affected. There are allegations of serious corruption amongst some states in this process. Apparently, in some places, recruits have to cough up large sums to even be enlisted. Beneficiaries from such spoils go all the way to the top. If the basic premise of joining the service is based on an upfront investment, it does not take a lot of imagination to gauge the dedication with which these recruits will perform towards their duties. In the least, they will need to recover their investment.

There are other problems too. Facilities and housing perhaps tops the list. Some figures suggest that over 60% of the policemen in Delhi and Bombay - who are expected to work a 24 hour shift - do not have houses, living often in shanty towns or other forms of shared accommodation in wretched conditions. It seems unlikely that such individuals would show any kind of commitment to their work.

Like most other departments within the framework of government, the police service too is crying out for some serious administrative reform. A critical step would be to implement an amendment of regulations which gives the service more independence and is less prone to endless meddling. Within Delhi and other state capitals, the government should create a separate rank to cater to the security paranoia of ‘important’ individuals and their families. Perhaps this should be outsourced to a private agency. The police service’s priority ought to focus on the maintenance of general law and order and more effective functioning of its investigative role. Thirdly, the service simply needs greater budgets, more numbers and in turn, more accountability on its own part.

All of this needs to happen with paranoiac urgency. Currently, the growth in Police ranks is far behind the escalation in the general population they are required to support. Leaving it too late will make things worse and consequently, even more difficult to correct. For economic growth and development to be sustained, the preservation of law and order are essential. People need to feel safe and protected. Society deserves the assurance that the law is behind them. This is a fundamental right within a democracy. Violent crimes are now no longer isolated incidents that one hears of and forgets. They have become a fact of everyday life. A failure to fix this would amount to a failure of the state itself.

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