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Indian policemen guard an area vandalized following violence between two groups in New Delhi. (Photo: AP)
Indian policemen guard an area vandalized following violence between two groups in New Delhi. (Photo: AP)

Opinion | The insidious role that incentives play in mob violence

A weak criminal justice system makes the probability of getting caught and punished extremely low

The violence in north-east Delhi last week and its aftermath are slowly sinking in, and a blame game has begun. Everyone seems convinced that the underlying cause was religious bigotry, though the identity of the bigot to be blamed changes according to religious and political affiliations. I argue that the Delhi Police is the most culpable.

I don’t attribute the carnage to just hate and religious bigotry. My reason is that such bigotry has always existed. It is unlikely that there is a sudden rise in the number of bigots in India or Delhi. Those who harbour these feelings have always harboured them; and these narratives have always existed in Indian society. But it does not usually translate into mob violence. All people, even bigots, are rational, in that they evaluate the costs and benefits of their actions. Religious bigots act on their base instincts only when they believe they can get away with it. Bigotry has always existed, but violence comes only with impunity. And, the current impunity in our society is a result of state inaction.

Whether a police force is inept or complicit, the effect on someone who wishes to engage in communal violence is similar. Nobel laureate Gary Becker presented a simple model for the rational criminal. A potential law-breaker rationally weighs the expected costs and expected benefits of breaking a rule. The expected cost is the cost of the violation (i.e. the punishment/fine) multiplied by the probability of getting caught. If the punishment or probability of getting caught is too low, then expected costs might be relatively low compared to the expected benefits of breaking the rule. While punishments on the books are very high in India, the problem is that weak state capacity, especially the weak criminal justice system, makes the probability of getting caught and punished extremely low.

In his 1997 paper titled, A Simple Model Of Crime Waves, Riots, And Revolutions, Alex Tabarrok argues that the probability of punishment is also a function of the total amount of crime that occurs. As total crime increases, the resources of the criminal justice system get strained, and fewer criminals are caught. There are two elements to an increase in overall crime. First, in India, everything from a cheque bouncing to cutting trees carries a criminal penalty, swamping the law enforcement system. Second, in any given moment, if lots of people break a single rule, then they are less likely to be caught and punished. Normally, looting and setting fire to a single store is easily identifiable, making the probability of capture fairly high. But if many people loot and set fire to multiple stores in a neighbourhood at the same time, the probability of capture declines, and so, more people do likewise, setting off a riot. Consequently, the interdependence of one criminal’s actions on another criminal’s decision to engage in a crime can become quite important in settings with police inaction.

Applying this to Delhi, not all religious bigots are rioters, and the difference between bigots and rioters lies in the incentives set by the criminal justice system. It is no surprise that India’s criminal justice system is swamped, and the police have very weak capacity. On the face of it, Delhi Police is the largest force in India and one of the best resourced and staffed. According to the 2019 Data On Police Organizations report (by the Bureau of Police Research and Development), the total strength of Delhi Police is 91,963, which translates into one policeman for every 249 Delhi residents. But at a vacancy rate of about 10%, the actual strength is 82,190, bringing the ratio down to one policeman for every 279 Delhi residents.

However, these numbers paint a very rosy and inaccurate picture because 70% of the capital’s police force is dedicated to VIP duty, and only 30% works in general policing, actually serving the citizens. So, the actual ratio of policemen to residents is at roughly one policeman per 928 Delhi residents. This is significantly lower than the national benchmark of one policeman per 568 people established by the Bureau of Police Research and Development. Delhi lags far behind other large cities like New York City, which has a ratio of one policeman for every 150 residents. Despite having a huge police force, Delhi’s VIP assignments, officially for the “security of protected persons", largely render the rest of the city’s residents unprotected persons.

Having only a fraction of the prescribed state capacity does not mean that all Delhi Police activities are proportionately reduced. It actually means that an enormous amount of discretion gets exercised over what gets police attention. Not just political elites, but other elite Delhi neighbourhoods receive far more policing, while poor neighbourhoods housing large numbers of Dalits, minorities, or migrants get the least attention. Also, violent crimes against women receive far less attention than non-violent regulatory crimes, and so on.

The level of unchecked violence in north-east Delhi last week hardly fosters trust in the Delhi Police. The police force’s inaction can at best be described as inept, or at worst as complicit. Unlike other police squads that fall under state governments, Delhi Police is controlled by the Union home ministry. Under this operational structure, it is the home minister who is ultimately responsible for law enforcement in the country’s capital. It is upon the home minister to improve law enforcement, change incentives for criminals, and get Delhi Police out of this ineptitude-complicity spectrum.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US

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