Friday, June 26, 2009

Police Reforms


WHY do we need police reforms? Police reforms are not about giving more powers to the police, but to protect life and property of the ordinary citizen and maintain public order. The recent terrorist attack in Mumbai has exposed some glaring loopholes in our security apparatus. Ten armed young men held the commercial capital of the country to ransom for three long days, killing 200 and injuring another 300 persons. The Mumbai police, which once enjoyed the reputation of being the best police force in the country, was found ill-trained and ill-equipped to face the terrorist challenge. It isn’t that Mumbai police was unaware of the lurking danger from the ‘jehadi’ forces from across the border; they were simply unprepared to face the new menace.
Now we know that there were ample warnings about the impending attack, and yet very little was done to thwart it! The ‘laid-back’ attitude of the senior officers and politicization of the police administration are two main causes of the apathy that has crept into the police over a period of time. Shorn of pride and commitment to their job, most police officers are content to serve their political masters. In the process, the enforcers of the rule of law are frequently seen to be on the side of the violators of law.
The police, not only in Mumbai but all over the country, neither have the resources, nor training or motivation to effectively deal with such threats to national security. Arbitrary interference in day-to-day functioning has played havoc with its organization and morale. The command and control in this uniformed disciplined force is under great stress. The ruling parties are directly interfering in their recruitment, posting, transfer and promotions. Beholden to their political masters, the police take less interest in the difficult task of enforcing the rule of law and spend more time in serving their benefactors. Persons with political influence and money have little difficulty in manipulating the police for their own selfish ends. Fear of legal punishment for these persons has virtually disappeared. It is not a coincidence that almost all political parties resist police reforms on one pretext or the other.
In post-independence India due to a shameful record of handling communal violence, endemic corruption, incompetence and resource constraints, the credibility of the police as the enforcer of law has greatly suffered. The police all over the country needs to be backed by cross-party political consensus and a nation-wide mandate to take action against all types of violence and law-breakers.
Terrorism poses the most serious challenge to the unity and integrity of the country. Obviously, a national threat cannot be met by piecemeal response. Zero tolerance for terrorism will remain a rhetorical statement until and unless the police radically improves its performance. And that is not possible without undertaking basic police reforms. The responsibility for the maintenance of internal security primarily lies with the police, but it has been so thoroughly politicized that in the worst insurgency-affected states it is hardly a functional force. For all practical purpose, it has become the ‘armed wing of the ruling party’ in these states. The politician-police-criminal nexus is getting stronger everyday.

The role of the police has undergone major changes since independence, but it continues to function according to the 1861 Police Act. I have been hearing about the need for police reforms since I joined the Indian Police Service in 1956, but hardly anything substantial been done in the last fifty year though peoples’ expectations have gone up.
The new democratically elected rulers are not very different from the colonial masters. In fact, the situation is much worse. They not only use and misuse the police for party purposes, they manipulate it for all sorts of usavoury ends. Corruption and nepotism are the order of the day. The police is not allowed to function in a manner that would instill a feeling of confidence among the people. The government has appointed one commission after another, but their reports have only gathered dust in the government archives for the last fifty years. The National Police Commission (NPC) submitted its last report in 1981, but till date no central government has been willing to implement any of its major recommendations.
Even the Supreme Court directives of September 2006, based on the NPC recommendations, have not found favour with the government. The Supreme Court gave six directions to the state governments and one to the Union government. These directives relate to important facets of the problems faced by the police: insulating it from undue political interference and giving functional autonomy, making it accountable, separating investigation from law and order duties in the metropolitan areas, introducing transparency in the selection of the police chiefs, and giving fixed tenure to officers posted in the field. The central government was also directed to constitute a national security commission to upgrade the effectiveness of the police forces and to improve their working conditions.

A police force raised to meet the requirements of the colonial masters cannot be expected to meet the challenges of modern times. The issue is being wrongly projected as one of empowerment. It is actually one of giving the country a professional police force capable of enforcing the rule of law and protecting life and property of all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, caste or creed. Neither the Centre nor states have till today complied with the directions of the apex court on one pretext or the other. Should we then be surprised if the force is fast losing the confidence of the people? Their credibility is so low that its version of the encounter in Batla House in the Jamia area of New Delhi in September 2008 is not believed by many political leaders and influential sections of the media, even though a Delhi police inspector was shot dead in this encounter.
Contrast this with the credibility of the British police. I was posted as First Secretary in the Indian High Commission in London, when one morning in January 1972 two Pakistani boys brandishing pistols in their hands stormed the India House and took the staff as hostage. They were demanding the release of some Kashmiri youth in Indian prisons. Aldwych, where the High Commission is located, is an important area. A police party reached the place within minutes. Without much warning to the two young men, they shot them dead. It was later discovered that they were carrying only toy guns.
When I enquired from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, if he required any assistance from the High Commission against possible criticism for the ‘hasty’ police action, his response was a firm ‘no thanks’. He was, in fact, surprised at my offer. He was quite clear in his mind that the police party was justified in doing what they did and that there would be no public criticism. He turned out to be absolutely right. Not one political leader or newspaper even obliquely criticized the police. In fact, The Times editorial praised the police action. Can one imagine such a reaction in India? The entire media and all the opposition parties would be vying with each other in criticizing the police action and in demanding the head of the police officers who fired the shots.

In view of growing violence, extensive social conflicts, and threats like terrorism, the role of the police has assumed great importance. But the Indian policeman is neither recruited nor trained or equipped to perform this role. The First Police Commission in 1902 took a conscious decision to have a ‘cheap’ police force. A constable was expected to perform only routine and unskilled duties. In contrast to the British ‘Bobby’ named after Robert Peel, the father of police reforms in Britain, the 1861 Police Act designed the Indian police as a low-cost unskilled force performing only mechanical duties. The duties of the police officer, as incorporated in Section 23 of the Police Act are ‘to obey and execute all orders and warrants lawfully issued by any competent authority.’
Nowhere does the Act suggest providing service to the people and working closely with them to earn their trust. The new rulers have found the Act useful in manipulating the police for partisan and personal ends by even ignoring the word ‘lawfully’ in actual practice. The Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860, Criminal Procedure Code in 1862 and the Evidence Act in 1872 have given the semi-literate and ill-trained policemen enormous legal powers. Yet, successive governments at the Centre and the state have little enthusiasm for improving their living and working conditions.

A police officer is supposed to be on duty 24 hours without any holiday. He lives away from his family because he has no living accommodation available near the place of work. He is expected to reach a crime scene in minutes, even if he is not provided with transport facilities. Even in metropolitan areas like Delhi and Mumbai, many of them live in ‘jhuggis’ and their living conditions are no better than of the poorest in the society. The media loves to paint them as villains living a life of luxury. While the fact of corruption in their ranks cannot be denied, it is rarely appreciated that over ninety per cent of the force have absolutely no scope for indulging in corruption.
Unfortunately, elitism within the superior ranks has only widened the gap between the field policemen and the supervising officers. The two inhabit very different worlds. A culture of distrust of the subordinate officer has developed over the years. This needs to change if the police are to be an accountable and professional force. Though over time, the requirements from a police constable have undergone a sea change and the tasks entrusted to him are sensitive and complicated, his status has only gone down further. The government continues to compare him with an unskilled Class IV employee. The law gives a constable enormous powers of arrest, search and seizure, but does not pay or train him to do this job.

The police force is also grossly inadequate in numbers to discharge its numerous duties. The police population ratio in India is 1:694 as compared to 1:336 in the US and 1:294 in UK. In fact, this ratio is much higher if we take into account the wastage of force on so-called VIP protection and other duties prioritized by the political rulers that have little to do with their primary role. Moreover, there are large numbers of vacancies in most states. These vacancies have little to do with paucity of funds and more with corruption and nepotism. The many recent recruitment scandals and scams are only the tip of the iceberg. Recruitments are held up till demands for money are met. There are also demands for recruitment on the basis of caste and other considerations. If someone joins the police by paying a bribe or using political links, he can hardly be expected to perform his duties in an impartial manner.
An assessment on the basis of statistics can be deceptive and may differ widely from the prevailing situation on the ground. There is large scale manipulation of data and minimization of crime such that the police statistics offer little help to formulate strategies to control crime. Incidentally, police performance in investigating crime is poor even by its own crime records. There is a lack of professionalism and frequent recourse to short-cuts.
A police officer enjoys immense discretion in the performance of his duties. The powers of arrest and search under Sections 151 and 165 CrPc can be grossly misused under pressure from political masters or for corrupt motives. The lower ranks too have wide discretionary powers under existing law. The organizational dynamics is seriously affected by the manner in which individual officers exercise this discretion in the powers of arrest, search and investigation.

Political control should not mean arbitrary interference in its working. As David Bayley, one of the world’s top experts on police, has succinctly observed – the police can influence political developments by just being deliberately inactive, or selectively active. The political rulers should know that they have no role in day-to-day functioning of the police. There is no place for arbitrary and malafide intervention in the police administration. There are well-set rules notified in the police manuals by state governments about postings, transfers and promotions of officers, but they are being blatantly flouted by many persons in high authority.
Police postings cannot be made subject of political patronage as is the case today. The politicians are interfering even in the investigation of crimes. In important cases, it is they who decide who should be arrested and who not. They decide which complaint should be registered and investigated. Even after a case charge-sheet is submitted in the court, it is not free from political interference. There is pressure not only in the appointment of the senior prosecuting lawyer, but undue interest in how the case is presented in court. There are instances when the prosecution made a complete turnaround in its arguments after a new government at the Centre or the state took office. The cases under trial in the court are often not properly argued by the prosecution because of directions from the new dispensation. Even the premier investigation agency of the country, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is not free from such allegations.
The much needed reforms in the police and criminal justice system can no longer be postponed. Putting police reforms on fast-track could be a fitting reply to the ever-increasing number of policemen who have lost their lives in fighting terrorists. There is a danger of the whole system collapsing unless immediate steps are taken to bring back credibility to the system in the eyes of the people. Essential reforms for effective policing can be divided in three parts: systemic, personnel, and accountability. They include the elimination of all type of arbitrary and undue external interference in police functioning; improvement in recruitment procedures, training, working and living conditions, equipment, leadership and supervision; but most importantly, to ensure that the police officers are accountable to the Constitution and the people of the country.

Restructuring does not mean only the induction of modern equipment and changes in training and organizational structure, it includes optimization of doctrine and concepts, upgrading human resources, streamlining logistics and modernizing the training methodology and reducing the ‘tail and teeth’ ratio, which at present is too high.
There is need for establishing a countrywide hi-tech network to link all the 14,000 police stations in the country. The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) should aim at providing the investigating officers with technology, tools and information to facilitate investigation of crime and arrest of criminals. Besides covering all the police stations in the country, it should establish a direct link between the 6,000 senior police offices. Such a system would improve the functioning of police force in the maintenance of law and order, traffic management and prevention of crime, besides keeping track of the progress of cases. The introduction of such a system would also result in the reduction of manual and redundant records-keeping.

In the new economic environment, the police are also becoming a tool in the hands of private corporate houses. The power brokers at the top of the political ladder openly interfere in the posting and transfers of senior police officers. An institution that is no longer in control of itself can hardly be expected to be accountable to the people. The system of punishment through departmental or judicial proceedings is virtually non-functional, due to the complicated procedures laid down by many court judgments. The problem gets further compounded by dilatory tactics of the offending officers, frequent transfers of enquiry officers and excessive workload of routine policing to be handled by the enquiry officers. In fact, punishment is not given to the offending officer but to the enquiry officer. External mechanisms of enforcing accountability hardly operate, and if at all, only ineffectively.
Unfortunately, put on the defensive, organizational culture is strongly resistant to any change. The current system of monitoring and controlling police performance through the District Magistrate is under great stress because of enormous increase in the workload of the DMs. Many district magistrates have allowed themselves to become a link between corrupt politicians and the police to subvert the system, functioning more as a link between the political executive’s publicly proclaimed lofty intentions and privately expressed not so lofty specific instructions. The rich and the powerful have virtual impunity from any legal punishment. A start can at least be made by the Union Home Ministry by introducing the much-needed police reforms in the union territories.

This absurd notion of ‘political correctness’ is seriously affecting the morale of the police and intelligence agencies. They must be insulated from partisan politics. They need more resources, both technical and human, but most of all they need functional autonomy from political interference. Presently, they are accountable to no one except their political masters. Instead of being held accountable for their failures, the incompetent officers are being rewarded, all because they are in the good books of their political masters. The police are required to give a focused response to important aspects of their role like intelligence gathering, data processing, investigation capability, interrogation techniques and operational skills. When the politicians and the police join hands to make room for the mafia dons and terrorists to freely commit acts of terror in exchange for money and muscle power, it is time to be seriously concerned about what is actually happening in many parts of our country.
The difficulty is that only when extortion and kidnapping become frequent and when gang-warfare killings increase, and the terrorists have a free run of the place, that the people, especially the middle class, start feeling insecure. Unfortunately, the government under strong public criticism is more inclined to take the easier option and resort to short-cuts. Instead of tackling the basic problems and strengthening the criminal justice system, it allows the police to combine in itself all the powers of the criminal justice system – that of the investigator, judge and executioner. If this phenomenon of ‘fake encounters’ is to be eliminated, the criminal justice system needs to be put back on the rails. The corrupt and the incompetent should not be allowed to rise to the top, and in no case should they be entrusted with the cutting-edge jobs with greater scope for indulging in corrupt practices. Corruption oversight mechanism, organizational structure, operational response to organized crime and terrorism are some of the issues that need attention.

Clear rules and procedures are laid down in all the state police manuals about the transfer, postings and promotions of subordinate police officers up to the rank of inspector. These rules are routinely flouted by the political rulers. The National Police Commission had made detailed recommendation about the transfer and postings of police officers, and the Supreme Court had issued directions based on these recommendations to the Centre and the state governments in September 2006, but all political parties are united for once in opposing the directive. Though technically, a transfer is not a punishment, in actual practice it can be more than a punishment for the officer concerned.
The politicians have successfully subverted the autonomy of senior bureaucrats by creating a large number of cadre posts with little substantive authority. The basic assumption behind the IAS and the IPS cadre rules, that all posts in a given scale are roughly of equal importance and job content and all the officers in that scale get the same take-home pay and perquisites, is no longer valid. By simple transfer, a minister can effectively give promotion or demotion. After a few penal transfers, officers begin to bend to the unreasonable demands of the politicians. Some do what they are told, others begin to look for protectors. Some seek support of caste and political groups. The concept of a neutral administration treating every citizen irrespective of caste or creed has been subverted like never before.
It is no coincidence that each time a new government takes office in the states or at the Centre, officers holding key posts in the administration, especially in the police, are shifted. New officers appointed to these posts are considered more loyal and pliable. Loyalty to the ruling party plays a role in selection to key posts. Terms like ‘rule of law’ and ‘law will take its own course’ have lost all meaning! All this has led to continuing decline in the quality of administration. The officers consider themselves accountable only to the person who has appointed them. Not accountable to any other authority, they are indifferent to the requirements of the people whom they are expected to serve.

The selection of a DGP should be on the basis of merit and seniority and not for political considerations through a state security commission as recommended by the NPC and directed by the Supreme Court. A police establishment board should be constituted to deal with all transfer, postings and promotions. The SHO, the District SP and the range DIG and IGP should have a fixed tenure, so that they cannot be shuffled around for political considerations. To improve the human resource of the police force at all levels, it is important that constables are reclassified as skilled workers. We cannot have a cheap police force and expect performance of western standards.
A constable is the cutting edge of the force, and yet his working and living conditions are simply awful. They have no housing and very poor medical and transport facilities. They are expected to be on duty twenty-four hours, but are deprived of even the most basic facilities. The rule of twenty-four hours, seven days a week for the policeman was made in the nineteenth century when the subordinate police officers were provided accommodation in the police station complex itself. That is no longer the case today, but police officers in a police station continue to be on duty round the clock, all seven days in a week.
In the twenty-first century, ours is the only country in the world where a police officer is subjected to these inhuman hours of duty. The problem is much worse in the big towns and cities. Even in the capital city of Delhi, a large number of constables living in ‘jhuggis’ far from their place of work, are not provided any transport. The families of policemen are the most neglected in our society. At the same time, there is need for strengthening both internal and external mechanisms to enquire into public complaints against police officers. There is need for a prompt and transparent process of enquiry. The National Police Commission’s recommendation in this regard deserves immediate consideration.

Protection of life and property of its citizens is the foremost responsibility of the state, and it cannot fulfil it unless the police effectively performs its legitimate role. When will our political class understand that while the police cannot be of much help in winning elections, it can by its acts of omission and commission make them lose elections? It is as much in their interest that the police perform its role of enforcing the rule of law in an impartial manner irrespective of class, caste or religion.

* The author was Joint Secretary, National Police Commission on police reforms.

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