Among all the corona warriors, the most visible, yet most underappreciated, are the humble policemen. Despite limited resources and a risk to life, India’s police agencies have risen to the challenge. Without them, achieving the primary objective of the lockdown — restricting the outbreak — would have been impossible.
As the lockdown began on the midnight of March 24, people confined themselves to their homes, commercial activities came to a halt and transport was grounded, traditional police functions were replaced by new ones. In place of the routine duties of law-and-order maintenance, crime control, and traffic management, the police had to make sure that the lockdown was effective. As the situation evolved, many new responsibilities were added. As the pandemic is expected to continue for a few more months, newer dimensions of policing will emerge.
The National Policy on Disaster Management (NPDM) 2009 describes the police as the “first and key responders” in a disaster. A pandemic was not “a notified disaster” before COVID-19. When the lockdown — amongst the most stringent in the world — began, the police neither had any standard operating procedure (SOP) nor guidelines. That, however, did not deter policemen and policewomen from risking their lives to ensure safety for the rest. They have manned barricade points day and night to prevent unauthorised movement, advised those violating movement restrictions, sometimes used force to stop them, and drawn “Lakshman rekhas” in marketplaces. They have gone beyond the call of duty — supplying vegetables and groceries to people in containment zones and arranging food and transport for migrant labour on the move. They have protected healthcare workers and ensured the seamless movement of transport and logistics for essential commodities. Police stations and checkpoints have become sites for public health campaigns. Posters, banners, and street plays have been used to communicate the importance of social distancing and hand-washing — officers have even demonstrated proper hand-washing techniques at traffic stops. These duties will continue for a while and will become more challenging as the country opens up.
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More importantly, the police force has been working under life-threatening conditions, since many of them do not have access to personal protection equipment (PPE). They risk catching the infection, taking it home and exposing their family. Hundreds of them have, in fact, been infected and many have died as well. When many of them had to be quarantined, the strength of the force was depleted, forcing the department to draw personnel from non-combat units or other sources. Manpower shortage became acute as the tasks expanded, especially in states like Bihar.
As days went by, the numbers of those arriving in states from outside, and then quarantined, rose to staggering heights, creating a nightmare for the administration. The police escorted migrant labourers from railway stations in cities to quarantine centres. The magnitude of the task can be gauged by the numbers. In Bihar, for instance, there were 12,909 quarantine centres in which 22 lakh people had registered and over 6 lakh had taken shelter as of May 28.
On top of these challenges, the police faced attacks from angry people for acting against lockdown violations and taking suspected patients to testing centres. As the administration was severely strained, there was often no clarity on matters like movement passes, which led to conflicts with people.
These examples of social service are not meant to celebrate the police, but to bring to light a core aspect of its work. Juxtaposing the two functions — law-and-order maintenance and social service — broadens our understanding of police behaviour and performance, especially in exceptional situations. India’s response to COVID-19 has highlighted the other police function, social service. This is in tune with the recommendation of the National Police Commission of 1980: “The police should duly recognise, and be trained and equipped to perform the service-oriented role in providing relief to people in distress situations”.
The pandemic has taught several valuable lessons. The police needs to better appreciate its role as the first responder in emergencies and consciously adopt disaster management — including disaster risk reduction activities — as one of its primary functions. Police reform committees too have spoken about this role. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and SDRFs in some states do have an essential role. But these agencies have their limitations. Therefore, building the ground-level capacity of the police — and sister agencies like fire safety authorities — is critical to their functioning as the first responder.
Police training focuses disproportionately on public order with a heavy emphasis on “hard” skills — weapon use, crime control, combat skills and crowd-control drills. Policing during the pandemic has underscored the need for soft skills — for example, dealing with people through effective communication and coordination. Police training should include a component on medical emergencies. The police need to prepare SOPs for public health crises.
In villages, with the large-scale return of migrants, the police force got stretched to the maximum, and people took upon themselves the role of policing — and they did well as they saw themselves as part of the solution. This model should be promoted for normal times as well. Community policing practices are used in mitigating communal tensions, in dealing with left-wing extremism and urban policing. But these are often localised ad-hoc initiatives. It’s time to integrate community policing into the police’s organisational ethos. Training academies should devote more time to this subject.
Community policing will be much needed in the coming months, when conflicts at family or village level and petty crimes are likely to come up as social aftershocks of COVID-19. Involving an alert community in the task will help the force.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2020 under the title ‘A people’s force’. The writer is former DGP, Bihar
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