Devangshu Datta: Start with police reform

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 11, 2013 19:34 hrs

The Delhi gang rape and ham-handed crowd control in its aftermath have led to public attention being drawn to the law and order machinery. Obviously reform is required if the system – courts and police combined – is to meet 21st-century needs. The best one can say about a system that secures one conviction in 600-odd rape cases is that it cannot get too much worse. Nor is it acceptable to live with a situation in which half the workforce faces the perpetual threat of violence, the public transport system can be shut down and the city centre turned into a no-go zone. The associated productivity losses are massive.

Apart from an inability to deal with violent crime, the police and courts are also ill-equipped to handle white-collar offences like credit card fraud. Nor is there adequate deployment of technologies like DNA-testing, IT security and biometric databases. There is no “soft support”, such as crisis centres, or counselling for victims of rape or domestic violence.

An overhaul of the Indian Penal Code (1861) is kind of overdue. But this will have no impact if efficiency on the ground doesn’t improve. Realistically, too many politicians stand to lose if the justice system gains in efficiency and that impedes legislative reform.

Administrative reform could help, however. A massive expansion of the judicial workforce is definitely needed just to deal with the backlog, and the government has to find budgets for that. Also, the Supreme Court takes 10 weeks of vacation, high courts eight weeks, and lower trial courts (where criminal cases are initially filed) four weeks. Surely, all courts can work five-day weeks, 52 weeks a year, with rotational leave? Limiting the number of adjournments per case would also eliminate another delay.

It is often said that Delhi Police is understaffed and underpaid. Statistics suggest a more nuanced situation. A Delhi Police constable at entry level receives Rs 16,000 to Rs 17,000 in hand (with house rent allowance). It has 57,500 uniformed personnel to manage a population of 16.75 million. That means 291 citizens per officer with entry-level compensation at 10 per cent over Delhi’s per capita of about Rs 14,700. New York City has a 233 citizen-police ratio and the London Metropolitan ratio is 232. Entry-level salaries in the New York City Police Department are about equal to the per capita of New York City. A London bobby starts at about nine per cent premium to London’s per capita.

The citizen-police ratio is not startlingly high in Delhi, and salaries are in sync with better-policed megacities. Delhi Police is poorly deployed, however. It is, indeed, overworked with officers serving insanely long duty stints. Reportedly, around 30,000 personnel are concentrated in the low-population, high-VIP, New Delhi area. The gender ratio is execrable. Women make up about eight per cent of the force. As mentioned above, there is a lack of human and technical resources in key areas like white-collar crime, rape and domestic violence specialists, forensics and so on. Budgets are required to induct such resources, with pay scales that can attract qualified personnel.

Above all, the incentives for a Delhi copper are all wrong. An officer can make far more than his salary with little fear of being caught and punished. The efficiency of thanas is judged on the number of FIRs filed and this makes for a reluctance to file cases. The interface between police and citizens is poor. To take one instance, the women’s helpline (181) inaugurated in December 2012 couldn’t be reached from many mobile phones for days. Citizens who called were also put interminably on hold. Deployment patterns must change. The incentives must change and the interfaces with citizens should improve. An effort must be made to improve gender ratios and to induct qualified personnel in key areas. This is not rocket science, nor can it happen in a day. However, this has become a poll issue. Now, that could make a positive difference.

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