The true extent of crime in a society is seldom known. In times when evidence-based policing and data-driven policies are being advocated, the absence of exact data on crime could pose serious problems. In India, crime is under-reported and under-registered.
The official picture with respect to crime in India is difficult to believe for several reasons. While popular perception associates many cities and states in India with a crime, going by official statistics, the country has one of the lowest incidences of crime in the world. India’s crime rate is 379.3 per 1,00,000 persons. Cases of dacoity, attempt to murder, robbery, rape and riot have gone down by 36.11 per cent, 16.26 per cent, 20.15 per cent, 0.78 per cent and 54 per cent respectively in 2018 as compared to the year before. Who will buy these statistics?
A major source of the problem lies in the manner in which crime data are collected and compiled. Crime data in India are collected and published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The data reported in this publication is based on the crime reported to local police stations. Police stations getting information about crime is one thing and such incidents being recorded as an FIR is another. This is in addition to all kinds of pressures and obstacles on a complainant, especially when the nature of crime is that of sexual assault, domestic violence or when it involves family members, relatives or powerful people. The resistance put up by the police station personnel in registering such crimes or reducing the seriousness of incident is well documented.
The NCRB data fall short of expectations in many respects. For instance, it is short on information about crime victims and witnesses. The official statistics miss out on several key areas: The profile of victims, their personal characteristics, victim-offender relationship, FIR registration experiences, experiences of interacting with police, number of days and time taken in getting FIR registered, instances of intimidation, pressure experienced from the accused or associates including police, nature of injury, medical assistance, information about legal aid, compensation.
A victimisation survey is often seen as a solution to such shortcomings. While many countries have conducted victimisation surveys to supplement their official crime data, India has yet to make a start. Such surveys reveal details that are missed out by the local police. They describe how crime has impacted the lives of victims and conevy their safety concerns.
These surveys gather information through personal or telephonic interviews with a set of people who represent the geographical and social correlates of a city or state over a period of time. The information thus collected may detail the victimisation suffered by a person but not recorded by the police for a variety of reasons. The other data which are generally collected in these surveys entail risk and vulnerability, perceptions about the local police and the views of people about the criminal justice system.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) measures the amount of crime by asking people about their experiences as crime victims. In the US, the National Crime Victimisation Survey (NCVS) presents data that is collected from a nationally-representative sample of about 2,40,000 interviews on criminal victimisation, involving 1,60,000 persons in about 95,000 households.
The data generated by such surveys are considered more reliable than the official statistics on crime and this is frequently used for various policy objectives. Such surveys are conducted by professionally-competent organisations and the state funds the processes involved in the generation of data.
The European Crime and Safety Survey (EU ICS) is the most comprehensive analysis of crime, security and safety in the European Union. In 1987, the United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) launched the International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS), which produces more comparable data across nations. These data are available in the public domain. The public in general is encouraged in all these countries by the state to participate in these surveys with an assurance about the confidentiality of the information they provide.
The data generated by the state in India, in contrast, doesn’t inspire public confidence. There are enough reasons to demystify crime and the people’s response to it in India. India-specific yardsticks, which the NCRB does not cover, could be evolved. However, there could be several challenges to such surveys. For example, people might not reveal more than what they have divulged to the police. Even then, it is still an endeavour worth attempting. Today, there are several methodological innovations to overcome the bottlenecks.
The government is expected to embark on the country’s first victimisation survey soon. The complexity of this endeavour demands that it be assigned to an institution that specialises in criminology, victimology and criminal justice administration. Such a survey is not simply about data collection, it involves nuanced understanding of the facets of crime and victimisation and presupposes specialist knowledge. I hope the home ministry is listening.
This article was first published on September 28, 2019 in the print edition under the title ‘Making crime less dark’. The writer is professor and chairperson, Centre for Criminology & Victimology at National Law University Delhi and vice president of Victim Support Asia.