Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Mumbai’s policemen reduced to statues

If one had asked Patel how to spend 3,000 crore, he would have probably given it to the Mumbai police

The tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attack on 26/11 has had the usual political response. The standard praise and salute for those who lost their lives, a strict warning to terrorists, some identity politics played using Pakistan and Islamic terror as targets, and finally praising the spirit of Mumbaikars. The script has been followed for 10 years, with some minor changes, and Indians have bought it. But the crucial lessons in crumbling infrastructure and state capacity have neither been addressed nor fixed.

While state capacity is weak and crumbling in every area, law and order and security in India have seen the biggest gaps. The UN recommended number requires 250 policemen per 100,000 citizens. India has about 129 policemen per 100,000 citizens, and only Uganda fares worse. And this number actually masks the extent of the problem. First, this is usually the allocated police force, and does not account for vacancies. About 20-25% of allotted police positions are vacant, and this is true, systematically and at all levels. Second, about one-third of the police force in all states and about half the police force in big cities such as Mumbai are dedicated to VIP duty. So the situation is quite dire and some areas are lucky if there are even 90 policemen per 100,000 citizens.

Mumbai police, not surprisingly, faces even greater stress. First, Mumbai city has about 4 million people coming in every day from the greater Mumbai metropolitan area. So, Mumbai police actually caters to a much greater number than the city population of 13 million. Second, Mumbai police is the first call of response for extremes, such as enforcing street hawking rules and terrorism-related activity, and all the crimes in between. And third, in Mumbai, there is an opportunity to kill a larger number and destroy a lot of economic value with a single attack, which has captured the imagination of terrorists. This requires the city to divert its limited capacity from law and order to address both regulatory problems and external security threats.

According to Praja’s White Paper on the State of Policing and Law and Order in Mumbai (2018), for 2017, the total sanctioned police force was 50,465, but with 17% vacancies, the actual number of working personnel was only 41,955. Others have provided varying estimates of between 20,000 and 27,000 personnel dedicated to VIPs, which leaves, at best, 20,000 policemen (at every level) for Mumbai citizens. This means there is one policeman for every 650-850 citizens, depending on the time of the day. And then there is the question of how well-equipped these policemen are for the threats they face.

No one can forget the images from that night 10 years ago with smoke rising from the Taj hotel. But we have forgotten that the Mumbai police was hopelessly outnumbered, and outmatched, not in spirit, but in equipment. While Mumbai policemen worked with old-school British World War II style pistols and rifles, and plastic helmets and protective gear that was designed to withstand stones not bullets, the terrorists had the most modern machine guns, grenades and explosives. The few officers who had the protection of a bulletproof vest couldn’t withstand the onslaught of the AK47 bullets. It took the Maharashtra government nine years to acquire more and better bullet proof vests. In March this year, minister of state for home Ranjit Patil admitted that of the 5,000 bullet proof vests ordered for the Mumbai police, 1,432 failed in the testing phase. They have learnt nothing from anti-terrorism squad chief Hemant Karkare’s death, caused that night by a poor-quality vest.

New York City compares to Mumbai, as a cosmopolitan high-density economic centre and terrorist target. New York City has one policeman per 240 citizens. New York Police Department (NYPD) is one of the largest police forces in the US and mayor Michael Bloomberg had famously said that he commands his own army. With a budget of over $5 billion, it is well staffed, well equipped and has the ability to respond to threats quickly. But this is possible because New York City has its own elected mayor and budget, and about 15% of the city’s budget is dedicated to NYPD. Mumbai on the other hand is at the mercy of the Maharashtra government, with its misaligned incentives catering to the rural areas for votes while using Mumbai for revenue.

Unlike most governance problems in India, which are complex and difficult to resolve, money can solve Mumbai police’s problem to a large extent. Budgets can both increase the number of police personnel and also be used for modernizing police equipment, as well as police training. This year, the Maharashtra government allotted 13,385 crore to the Mumbai police, of which 8,000 crore was for salaries and 5,000 crore for equipment, ammunition, etc. Mumbai police needs at least a threefold increase in the budget. Only then can it invest in increasing its strength and training officers at all levels to effectively deal with the law and order, and security problems of such a large metropolis. And as the largest revenue generator in India, the city can more than pay for its police budget.

India recently spent 3,000 crore on a statue of Sardar Patel in Gujarat. As India’s first deputy prime minister he was well-versed with unrest, rioting and insurgency at the birth of the nation, and used India’s armed and police forces effectively to quell more than one problem. If one had asked Patel how to spend 3,000 crore, he would have probably given it to the Mumbai police.

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University School of Law.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

Close