New Delhi: On any other weekday morning, constable Bishan Singh would have been on patrol near Delhi University, keeping his eyes skinned for petty crimes—“and also helping senior citizens if they need assistance", he says, a little virtuously.

Back to basics: Delhi policemen attend a training course in English conducted by IETS, in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games to be held in the Capital, at the Civil Lines police station in Delhi. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

This particular morning, however, he’s sitting in a police station classroom. Detailed posters on small arms and rifles hang behind him, but he’s poring over a grid of jumbled alphabet, trying to find the word “traffic".

It isn’t a difficult grid—it wouldn’t, in fact, be out of place in a 10-year-old’s activity book. All the 16 words that can be found in it are part of the daily vocabulary of a beat policeman, and Singh and his classmates have at least 20 minutes to find them. But most of them haven’t been required to read this much English since school, many years ago, and so they wrestle with the workbook, sometimes sneaking sidelong peaks into a neighbour’s page.

The workbook is at the heart of an ambitious training programme, run by IL&FS Education and Technology Services Ltd (IETS), to teach 40,000 of Delhi’s policemen the sort of English they would need when the 2010 Commonwealth Games begin in October. Since March 2008, when the programme began after a pilot, IETS has taught 26,000 policemen.

“We’ll have to train the remaining 14,000 by July," Vikrant Abrol, head of the IETS Education Centre, says. “We’ll definitely have to up the tempo."

Abrol isn’t daunted by the volume of humanity that he has been tasked to process; over 18 months, IETS once trained 270,000 employees of the Gujarat government in “attitudinal change". What he does wish, however, is that IETS had more time with each policeman. “Initially I was very critical," he says. “We’ve been given only 9 hours per student, because they can’t be spared from their duties. Ideally, we’d have liked 50 hours, spread over a month or so."

The training works at near-industrial speeds. In five police stations across Delhi, batches of 50 policemen—constables through inspectors—go through their classes in a day-and-a-half; with 16 such batches per police station, which translates into 4,000 policemen per month. There are no follow-ups or refresher courses. Glumly, Abrol doubts that many of the graduates of the first few batches, nearly two years ago, will remember their lessons come October. But from the feedback forms, he is certain that the policemen are keen and motivated, and that they too wish for further lessons.

The classroom sessions are a mix of workbook activities, spoken presentations and listening comprehension, all tightly related to police duties. Students get up and haltingly explain, for instance, the route from the Inter State Bus Terminus to Azadpur, or they describe people in the manner required by a first information report.

“They’ve all learned the alphabet in school, so that’s fine," says Jaibala Gautam, a diminutive IETS teacher, who, in an odd reversal, calls her students “Sir". “The biggest challenge is to convince them that they can pick up something worthwhile in a day-and-a-half. And they really can."

Abrol’s assessment—that the policemen want more—is accurate.

During a tea break, at 11am, Singh stands in a little coterie of smokers, with two other north Delhi constables, one named Jagdev Singh and another who only identifies himself as Raju. “The only ongoing training we get otherwise is in the Indian Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code," Raju says. “So we need this. But in such a short time, we can’t learn as much as we’d like. Even the rickshaw drivers in Connaught Place will know more English, simply because they get to speak it more with tourists."

Jagdev Singh points out that it’s simply a question of practice—which is why, for example, the younger, more computer-savvy constables know more English than the sub-inspectors a generation above them. (“We wouldn’t even know what to do with a keyboard!" he says.) More classroom sessions would have provided more practice, so lacking otherwise in a Delhi policeman’s daily life.

“We’ll just have to seek each other out and converse with each other," Raju says. “After all, if you just stand a stone upright on the ground, it’ll fall over in a couple of days. You need to really plant it in the ground to make it stand permanently."

R.S. Krishnaiah, principal of Delhi Police Training College, admits that the duration is not ideal. “But if you want to make them fluent, you need time, and time is difficult to spare in the police," he says. “Even if they’re learning small, simple sentences, at least they’re speaking. That makes a difference, because many of these policemen are from rural backgrounds, and they hesitate to try speaking English. Now at least some of that hesitation can be removed."

Abrol’s favourite piece of feedback is the one he narrates with the broadest smile. “After the first few sessions, some of the policemen came back to us and said: ‘Nobody has ever spoken this politely to us before.’ They’ve become so used to verbal abuse," he says. “Nobody has genuinely asked a 50-year-old cop: ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ They were amused that they were being treated so well."