India’s police force among the world’s weakest4 min read . Updated: 19 Jun 2019, 01:28 PM IST
Many of the issues with India’s understaffed, overburdened police could stem from the growing criminalization of politics and reluctance for reform
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According to a 2018 survey of 15,562 respondents across 22 states on perceptions about policing, the Lokniti team at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that less than 25% of Indians trust the police highly (as compared to 54% for the army).
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A big reason for the distrust is that interactions with the police can be frustrating, time-consuming and costly. According to the latest available data, 30% of all cases filed in 2016 were pending for investigation by the end of the year. This combined with the pendency in the judiciary means securing justice in India can take a very long time. As in the case of the judiciary, pendency in the police is driven by a lack of resources. The sanctioned strength of the police across states was around 2.8 million in 2017 (the year with the latest available data) but only 1.9 million police officers were employed (a 30% vacancy rate). As a result, according to Mint’s calculations, there are only 144 police officers for every 100,000 citizens (the commonly used measure of police strength), making India’s police force one of the weakest in the world. India’s police-to-population ratio lags behind most countries and the United Nations-recommended ratio of 222.
Policing in India is a state subject which means there is significant variation across states. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal’s police forces are all extremely understaffed with less than 100 police staff for 100,000 population. The only states with police forces that meet the global standard are the police forces in the insurgency-affected states in the North-East and Punjab. Even filling the vacant police posts may not be enough to bring India’s police force up to speed with global standards. A fully staffed police force (with hiring up to the sanctioned strength of 2.8 million) would only increase India’s police-to-population ratio to 185. And even as states have increased the sanctioned strength of their police forces, their populations have increased by even more - especially in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Decreased spending on police in recent years is adding to the resource crunch. Between fiscal 2011 and 2015, states spent 4.4% of their budgeted expenditure on policing on average but this has reduced to 4% over the last four years, according to PRS Legislative Research. An under-resourced, overburdened police force means that both core police activities (enforcing daily law and order) and more long-term criminal investigations are compromised.
Exacerbating this is the bigger issue of accountability within the police. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission in 2007 had noted that politicians were unduly influencing police personnel to serve personal or political interests.
The rather obvious solution to this is to simply limit the political executive’s control over the police - a point underscored by various committees and the Supreme Court in their recommendations for police reforms over the years.
The first National Police Commission in 1981 delivered eight reports addressing a range of police issues. In 2005, the Police Drafting Committee drafted a Model Police Act to replace the existing and archaic Police Act, 1861. Most recently, last year, the Supreme Court issued new directives to state governments to implement the directives that the apex court had recommended in 2006. Thus, both the problems and potential solutions to India’s police problems are well-understood.
What has perhaps stymied the implementation of these reforms is the lack of political will, which in turn could be linked to the growing criminalization of politics. When lawmakers increasingly feature serious criminal charges in their resume, they have very little incentive to professionalize the police force.
In each successive Lok Sabha election over the past twenty years, the proportion of candidates with serious criminal charges has only grown.
The long-run trends in state assemblies are similar, with criminal candidates contesting and winning in greater numbers than before, the political scientist Milan Vaishnav noted in his 2015 book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics.
Vaishnav traces the roots of the criminal-politician nexus to the zamindari system in the country --- which established the legitimacy of the strongman who could settle disputes and dispense patronage --- but points out that it intensified during the Indira Gandhi era, which marked the decay of party and state institutions across the country.
The decay of party organizations made both the Congress party as well as its rivals dependent on assorted slumlords and gang-lords to reach out to an influential section of voters. And to protect these elements, the police force was thoroughly politicized, with even the appointment (or transfer) of junior police officers decided by political bosses. Low police salaries meant that they increasingly came to depend on kickbacks from criminals leading to a deep nexus between the three elements—criminals, politicians, and the police—which thrives to this day.
This is the concluding part of a two-part data journalism series on reforms in India’s law enforcement and judicial machinery. The first part examined the issue of pending court cases across the country