Four years ago, as a young woman died in a Delhi hospital, her body battered by violence that is hard to imagine, let alone comprehend, India promised women justice. It gave them, instead, a law. The facts are simple. Ever since the 2012 gang-rape in Delhi, more women are reporting sexual assault to police forces across the country. Police forces, in turn, are proving more willing to record those complaints. This is a good thing; criminal justice cannot be built on deceit. Yet, despite a law that gives great weight to the testimony of victims, and promises rapid trials, conviction rates are showing no significant improvement. Large numbers of perpetrators walk free: Reasonable doubt, after all, is little more than friends willing to vouch that the alleged attacker was across town, or cash that then secure the silence of witnesses.
This could be because police forces across the country remain incapable of gathering prosecutable evidence. The politicians who passed the new sexual assault law also promised to equip police forces to deal with crimes using modern investigative techniques, including forensics. Bar a few islands of excellence, this has not happened. Police training for investigation remains grossly inadequate. In many states, curricula have not been revised significantly since Independence, and training time for the constabulary — the first responders in a crisis — remains minimal. Human resource deficits, which successive governments have promised to address, remain alarming. Forensic laboratories are severely backlogged; at the level of the district, they are simply unknown. Few police stations have trained evidence collection units. Put simply, police forces are under-trained, under-staffed, under-paid — and under-functioning.
Lessons need to be drawn from this unhappy state of affairs. Key among them has to be that passing laws isn’t a substitute for thoroughgoing public policy interventions: Too often, governments have responded to quick-fixes. Predictably, they have failed. The second lesson is the problem of capacity building in police forces cannot delayed, if we want to address the many everyday threats civil society faces. The same underlying issue ties together problems ranging from the haemorrhaging of life in traffic accidents to street violence and sexual assault. Police accountability, and police autonomy, are basic tools for protecting that foundational element of any democracy, the rule of law. The memory of what happened to one young woman four years ago, and what happens to many more women, should evoke not just outrage, but a commitment to hold governments to account.