Empower the constabulary

By Anil Kaushik

First a disclaimer for the benefit of an apprehensive reader: The article is about realignment of powers, already vested in the police department and not a plea for additional powers.

The internal security scenario in large swathes of the country is challenging due to multiple threats. Breakdown of law and order in almost all the states is fairly common.It may be tempting and even expedient to lay the blame for unresolved issues of public order and unsolved sensational crimes at the door of the police but such attempts can cost the society its stability. Worse still, the political establishment seems to be indifferent to the core concerns of the police department. The police force may be insensitive, corrupt and incompetent but these cannot be an alibi on the part of the political executive for inaction.

Let us presume that the sanctioned strength of the state police forces are periodically determined rationally by taking into account the legal, mandatory requirements and core concerns of law abiding citizens. There are 24.84 lakh sanctioned posts of police personnel in the state police forces. From among the sanctioned posts, the total manpower authorized for more than 15,000 Police Stations across the country is only around 7.7 lakh. And this, too, is just on paper because there are around 21 per cent vacancies in the states. Therefore, effectively for about 2,000 persons, just one official is available in a PS to respond to their distress calls. Obviously, it is a ridiculously low number. Any surprise that police personnel are an overworked lot!

Since the political class had no burning desire to spare adequate resources for the police departments, vacancies kept piling up. As per the latest data available, the actual strength of the total state police forces on January 1, 2017 was 19.26 lakh. Some posts were being filled up periodically, generally in pursuance of some political agenda. In 2013 a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by advocate Manish Kumar claiming that the law and order situation in the country was deteriorating due to the large number of vacancies in the police services, at all levels, across the states. In August 2017 the SC asked the states to explain the mechanism of recruitment and the time frame for filling up the vacant posts. Due to the slow procedural pace, home secretaries of certain states were even called for appearance in the court following which action was initiated and states began to submit roadmaps for recruitment.

Our almost bankrupt states which prefer to squander their scarce resources in populist schemes and bestow largesse on select cronies cannot be expected to boost the police manpower substantially. The police leadership should be grateful to the SC if its monitoring of the recruitment processes brings the vacancy position to an acceptable level.

Let us look at the issue from a different angle. The expansion of the police force when compared with the growth of the population shows that during the last decade the population has risen by around 13 per cent, whereas the police force has shown an increase of around 50 per cent. Here, a comparison of the conditions prevailing in different countries is in order. Area-wise, the largest country, Russia has only around 14 lakh police personnel, and it is considered to be a heavily policed country. Population-wise, the largest country, China has around 16 lac police personnel. The US, the second largest, area-wise, has around ten lac police personnel and the effort of the individual forces in the country is to reduce their strength.

Frequent breakdowns of law and order and shoddy investigations are not merely on account of shortage of police personnel. However, typically, the issue of vacancies becomes the focus as it is too stark a reason to be ignored. There are multiple factors for inadequate police response to different situations. Low per capita output of a police officer on account of rudimentary gadgetry and inadequate training is an issue. Ever–increasing non-core police duties like assisting in demolition of illegal structures, collecting fines, impounding stray cattle & dogs, rounding up of beggars etc. create avoidable burden. Wasting time in dodging registration of cases; shunning those who come seeking help impairs the morale as well as their efficiency. Amidst this, the skill and art of entertaining self styled leaders with nuisance value, is honed as a survival tactic, but none the less it consumes time and energy. To add to it all, the tendency of the police leaders is to over-deploy personnel in order to play safe during law and order and VIP security duties with little clear-cut briefing. Vulnerability of various ranks before superior executive, political or financial clout often leads to convoluted investigations, multiple enquiries and uncalled-for police duties. The general public may be dismissive of or even derisive about these troubles but policy makers have to address them.

It may not be possible for the police command, or, even the political leadership, to eliminate all these hurdles but serious efforts are required on their part.

The first step towards the effort can be to raise the sanctioned strength of the PSs at the cost of the Armed Police reserves. With violence and impunity increasingly becoming acceptable weapons in social and political dealings, the Indian cop acting as an unarmed London Bobby is a meaningless expectation. The civil police have to be better armed and trained. In any case a fairly large section of the armed police force is attached to the civil police on long term duties. They can preferably be used to ramp up the civil police strength.

Secondly, our constabulary consisting of head constables and constables needs to be better utilised. Head constables comprising about 20-22 per cent of the force have certain investigation powers to exercise and hold supervisory responsibilities but sadly our Constables, forming about 64-65 per cent of the force, are used only for routine duties. Beat patrolling duties are turning redundant, which they perform in a desultory manner. They are not trusted with any significant responsibilities and usually await orders. And when the leadership is unable to hand – hold them, they tend to run amuck. The constables are deployed in bulk in law and order, bandobust or VIP security duties where a majority of them simply while away time and return feeling tired after ‘over-work’. The HCs, due to sheer work pressure at the PS level, are assigned more and more core policing responsibilities. But in respect of the constables, the mind-set of the police leadership prevails that constables are good enough for sundry duties or to assist higher ranks alone.

How can any real, meaningful service be delivered by 15 per cent of the force, i.e., non-gazetted and gazetted officers while 85 per cent of the force is earmarked primarily for assistance purposes? Moreover, many from among the 15 per cent mentioned confine themselves strictly to ‘supervisory’ responsibilities, disinclined to directly take over tricky crime or law and order situations. In addition, some of them may be kept on undesirable posts with barely any job content. The National Police Commission of 1977, which stands almost forgotten, had recommended that the component of the constabulary be brought down from 85 to 45 per cent of the force. But where are the funds for such an enormous make over?

Howsoever, flawed the recruitment process may be, adequate talent does get attracted to the rank of constable. But if the talent is kept under-utilized with little job satisfaction, a professional becomes more susceptible to all kind of ideas, including extortion from the public and collusion with criminals. Instead of all the Constables being compelled by default to waste their abilities in performing mundane tasks, ways must be found to identify the capable ones and train them for investigations. The trend of entrusting investigations mandatorily to higher ranks may have to be curtailed and gradually reversed in favour of constables.

Since the possibilities of growth within the career are rather limited, many competent and/or resourceful constables have created comfortable niches for themselves within the department or even outside. They stay content performing conventional duties. If a constable does not display the potential of a future investigator and is efficient in carrying out routine tasks, he may be allowed to continue so, otherwise he can be utilized in the Armed Police, Welfare Centres etc. to prevent him from joining hands with criminals. Deadwood may be tolerated, not rogues.

Utilising constables as investigators is not enough empowerment. Under the Police Forces (Restriction of Rights) Act, 1966, certain rights of the members of the Forces, charged with the maintenance of public order, are controlled, to ensure proper discharge of duties and to maintain discipline among them. Section 3 of the act imposes limitations on to right to form associations and to establish any communication with the media. Certainly there is need to allow constabulary to make associations for reasons explained here.

Our public order situations are becoming more and more uncontrollable due to direct political patronage. Even ruling political parties encourage strong arm tactics if it suits their purpose. Fringe elements, too, indulge in venomous rhetoric and violence to gain political relevance. On account of having enjoyed 70 years of freedom and witnessed ‘misdeeds’ of the police, large sections of the Indian public have lost considerably respect for the law and fear of the police . Quite frequently, individual police officers get beaten up. In a highly charged law and order situation, if a police officer inadvertently becomes isolated, he runs the risk of being lynched. Successful tracing and prosecution of such murders is more than unlikely. The police leadership has by and large failed to protect their subordinates, as the whole system has become politicized. Some sort of association of constabulary, short of a trade union, can plan a united action to safeguard/protect their life, interest and dignity.

The senior police authorities may not appreciate it but it is a fact that many seniors misuse the fetters on the rights of their subordinates. Bargaining powers of the association will certainly be used against the senior officers, as has been the case in West Bengal and Kerala. In case the senior police officers apprehend that they may not be able to command their empowered men to take on difficult operations, the reality is that even without the associations, resourceful subordinates succeed in avoiding uncomfortable settings and unacceptable postings. Some of them can even manipulate the transfers of their seniors. In Punjab, the formation of a district armed reserve is a herculean task for the SSP due to the “sifarish” syndrome.

With associations in place, leadership qualities will be put to more rigorous tests. But identification of bad eggs in the constabulary will also become easier. Of course, the final call as to what type of police force, including its leadership, middle management and constabulary the society will have, belongs to the political class. But, as goes the proverb, time and tide wait for none.

Empowerment, by no means, is a one way street. Our constabulary needs to be made more accountable in law and order situations. A few of such problems tend to go out of hand. Occasionally, some policemen can be seen either running away from a confrontation or resort to indiscriminate firing. Later, the police leadership has to perforce present a cock and bull story in subsequent enquiries to justify their ‘minimum’ use of force. It is proposed, as is the rule with all use of force in England and Wales, the onus be shifted on the individual officer to justify his use of firearm in the court of law. Of course, individual stray cases of firing, not related to mob control, have to be always justified by the official concerned.

All major changes are accompanied with strong resistance. In Haryana, a miniscule percentage of veiled women act as sarpanches while a majority of them probably continue to tend to their men folk and livestock. Nonetheless, the women sarpanches act as the harbingers of change, a positive change. Similarly, the new police recruits, sufficiently trained and empowered, hopefully, will bring about positive changes. Otherwise, the leadership can continue to nurture dreams of officer-oriented policing, but our political authorities will not provide the resources for it. Empty rhetoric and exhortations to the policemen for public service are always available to the leadership as an escape route.

Anil Kaushik is a retired DGP of Punjab. The views expressed are his personal.

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