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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What we need for our thanas

The dreaming spires of Oxford are some distance away from the police station of Jhabreda in district Haridwar of Uttaranchal. The distance i...

Written by Abhinav Kumar |
September 9, 2005

The dreaming spires of Oxford are some distance away from the police station of Jhabreda in district Haridwar of Uttaranchal. The distance is of course geographical but more significantly, it is the institutional and cultural distance, the distance between the theories of political economy I learnt at the feet of many eminent and wise men at Oxford and the one I grapple with on the ground.

The ground here is the thana, functioning out of a few rooms ‘‘requisitioned’’ from the agriculture department, a new building, partly funded by the modernisation efforts of the Government of India. Qasba Jhabreda is a more accurate microcosm of modern India than the malls of Gurgaon or the hi-tech marvels of Bangalore and Hyderabad. It is prosperous with good future prospects, there is a huge factory coming up nearby, but it is also a very caste-conscious society with low levels of literacy especially amongst women. After 9 years in the IPS, one begins to form a perspective about the profession.

Recent incidents in Gurgaon and Chandigarh, widely reported as representative of the police mindset, have again put the spotlight on the Indian police. From within, the profession sees these episodes as another example of everyone ganging up against the police, while from without they are seen as another reason why citizens must never trust the men and women in khaki.

The recently concluded national conference of District SPs with the Prime Minister (September 1) was therefore an occasion to understand and bridge this deficit of trust and expectations. It was heartening to see that several of us saw it as an opportunity to tell the PM about the outlook for policing from Jhabreda or Hapur, or any other mofussil township that is now a battleground for the idea of India.

All things considered, we told him enough, although much remained that also needed to be said. As field officers, we are acutely aware that policing as a profession is experiencing a crisis of confidence and credibility. It is not within our power alone to remedy this without serious support and engagement from the highest levels of policy making.

Compared to similarly situated personnel in other departments, the constable faces persistently hazardous working conditions, longer working hours with little time to rest and relax, and a steep pyramidical structure with poor pay and promotion prospects. The result is a sub-culture with a well-deserved reputation for tolerance towards corruption, insensitivity and brutality.

At present, police being a State subject, apart from pay, there are no nationally mandated standards specifying recruitment, training and career planning. Even the basic requirement of a uniform job description is missing.

And on the subject of pay, the Fifth Pay Commission classified the constable, our cutting edge functionary, as semi-skilled labour, and fixed the emoluments accordingly.

It is worth noting that the Planning Commission of India even today does not have a full-time division or even a working group or a task force for addressing police-related policy issues, unlike other vital areas requiring public investment. What accounts for this systematic failure to address the policing needs of the country from a national perspective?

Policing at the thana level has become a scandal and some thought needs to be given to bringing this core function of the states into the concurrent list, so that the government of India can make more effective interventions in improving our police infrastructure. The states of course will drag their feet on this issue, after all power still flows from the barrel of the gun.

But, in state after state, as the police grapple with the million mutinies against government failure, reluctance to initiate debate will continue to put the very unity and integrity of India at risk.

Our Founding Fathers were certainly seized of this issue. This is why the Indian Police Service was retained by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, despite the objections of his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly to having him perform a leadership role in all areas pertaining to policing and internal security.

Uncomfortable as it is to admit it, the real or perceived failures of the police are therefore, to a great extent, failures of the IPS. Since independence, the IPS too has suffered the decline evident in other institutions of governance. It is now seen, with some justification, as another trade union of vested interests. From a national perspective, two crucial developments are responsible for this. Firstly, rather than focus on its core competence, the IPS has been drawn into an unnecessary struggle for supremacy with the IAS. Many IPS officers make a career out of resentment and regret of not having quite made it to the IAS.

Our constant bickering has led the media and the public to see both the IPS and the IAS as self-seeking and self-promoting government servants, babus all, some in safari suits, others in khaki. There is of course a genuine problem of cadre management and wider career opportunities at middle and senior levels of the IPS, but it is not as if giving complete parity to the service with the IAS in terms of pay, promotion and a say in policy making would cure the police of all its ailments.

The second and more crucial issue is that across the country, visible control over powers of police patronage has become a populist substitute for good governance. In state after state, local politics is not about deciding priorities of development, it is increasingly about who controls the thana. This has been achieved by systematically starving the police of basic resources and thereby, in a Faustian bargain, rendering it completely dependent on powerful local vested interests for its basic operational requirements. We are beholden to the rich and powerful because without their ‘‘support’’ we simply cannot function.

This politicisation of the police, along with the criminalisation of politics, is neither good for the police nor for civil society at large. While the IPS needs to acknowledge the need for more accountability and better delivery of services, there is paradoxically also a need for insulating the force from undue pressures in its daily working. The police have become a lightning rod for the wider failures of the Indian state and not surprisingly, being the sword and shield of the state, the police also bear a disproportionate brunt of the public ire against the inefficiencies and incompetence of the entire state machinery. There is a pressing need for external evaluation of prevailing practices in the police.

One would like to see an IIM or a TCS look at the entire police setup from a service sector perspective and give us an outside view backed with academic credentials and managerial expertise. Simultaneously there is a need to make the entire organizational structure of police forces across the country more process oriented. The recent initiative taken by states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra in introducing a system of ISO certification for police stations is a welcome step that needs to be adopted across the country.

In the British Raj, the logic of empire dictated that the police setup was consciously modelled after the Indian Army. Since independence, it is safe to say that this imitation has gradually attained the shape of a caricature. We have retained only the outward semblance of being a disciplined and uniformed force.

To be fair, our armed forces have received far greater support from policy makers and the public. Everyone is prepared to reward the jawan for his patriotism and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. The standards of discipline imposed upon him are greater than those for the constable, but then so is the safety net provided by the institution of the army. By contrast, there are significant variations in the benefits provided by different states to the next of kin of policemen killed on duty. These compare quite unfavourably with what is provided for by the central police organizations and the armed forces.

The MHA should insist on a national standard for such benefits. A supreme sacrifice is no less whether made on the icy heights of Siachen or in the killing fields of Naxal-affected areas.

The time has come for the state and civil society to take a fresh look at the social contract with the men and women in khaki. It would be quite disingenuous and indeed dangerous to think that the rest of the country could march to the possibilities of the 21st century, while the police languish in the mindset of the 19th century.

The writer, an Oxford graduate, is currently SSP Haridwar. He can be reached at:

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