Regarding the guards
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The current ruckus, following Tuesday's report from Human Rights Watch on India's "abusive and failing" police system, is a regular feature of our national conversation. In December 2008, after Mumbai, a group of eminent citizens wrote a letter. Why can't all political parties agree that police reform and independent policing should be issues beyond political capital? Why, once elected, can't they agree to introduce police reforms in the first 100 days? These were rhetorical questions asked in the letter. And the letter distilled out present problems into three elements — undue and illegitimate political interference, neglect by governments of constabulary (corrupt recruitment, inadequate training, bad management, insufficient pay, inadequate equipment and infrastructure) and lack of accountability (this spills over into corruption). In every perception-based survey on corruption (not just Transparency International), police figure at the top and Bollywood only mirrors that reality.
Implementing police reform is more important than privatisation (or disinvestment) of PSUs. It is more important than right to education or right to food. It is more important than Balochistan. If the aam aadmi is asked which organ of government hurts the most, the answer will invariably be the police; both in the negative sense of not doing what it is supposed to do — ensure the rule of law — and in the positive sense of doing what it should not do — harassment, rent-seeking. Is police reform on the UPA-II agenda? Arguing it is a state subject will not wash; there are several ways of incentivising states.
We have known what needs to be done for almost 30 years. Eight reports from the National Police Commission, including a Model Police Act, began to flow in 1979. No one bothered; that is, no one in government. Confronted with legislative and executive inaction, what does one do? Perhaps resort to courts and PILs. So we had the Prakash Singh and N.K. Singh PIL in the Supreme Court in 1996; the Ribeiro Committee in 1998-99, the Padmanabhaiah Committee in 2000; and the Police Act Drafting Committee in 2005. Finally, we got a Model Police Bill in 2006. State governments would implement it. Then the home minister promised a new act (to replace legislation from 1861) would be passed by Parliament and implemented in Union Territories in 2007.
Manna didn't descend from heaven. Nothing happened in Delhi, and close-to-nothing happened in the states. The 2006 Supreme Court judgment in response to the 1996 PIL had seven simple directives: (1) constitute security commissions to evolve broad policy in states, evaluate state police and insulate state police from government influence; (2) appoint a DGP through transparent process, with minimum tenure of two years; (3) ensure operational police officers have a minimum tenure of 2 years; (4) separate investigation and law & order functions; (5) establish boards to decide transfers, postings, promotions and service matters; (6) an independent complaints authority; and (7) a National Security Commission.
The key is insulating police administration and de-linking law enforcement from executive control. Political supervision shouldn't be synonymous with control. New Zealand made this distinction rather well. For instance: "The Commissioner is responsible to the Minister for... the carrying out of the functions, duties, and powers of the police; and... giving effect to any directions of the Minister on matters of Government policy." However, "The Commissioner is not responsible to the Minister, but must act independently, in... enforcement of the criminal law in particular cases and classes of cases, matters that relate to an individual or group of individuals [or] decisions on individual members of the police." And that's the real reason why recommendations of commissions result in acts of omission by the Centre and by state governments. Regardless of what citizens want, no political party wishes to relinquish control. Bollywood's depiction of the P-C-P (politician-criminal-police) partnership is based on reality. This may be more pronounced in India's badlands, but exists everywhere.
It isn't quite the case that no state has introduced reforms. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative tracks compliance with the seven Supreme Court directives. Remarkably, the states most compliant are in the Northeast: Arunachal, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur. Barring MP, none of the larger large states is compliant with any of the directives.
Sure, twelve states have enacted new legislation. Four have completed drafting and tabled bills and nine are currently drafting. But the key isn't motions of going through with a new piece of legislation, but its content. To be fair, there are also instances of police reform in some states — Meghalaya, Arunachal, Himachal, Tripura, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Rajasthan. The Rajasthan experiment is the most broad-based and successful, covering 150 police stations in 11 districts; it has been externally vetted by MIT's Poverty Action Lab. It shouldn't be surprising that more than one police station in Rajasthan has been voted among the best police stations in the world. If this seems difficult to swallow given our perceptions of the Indian police, I recommend a visit to any one of these 150 police stations. (Even virtual visits are possible, though one shouldn't use the NIC route.) What led to reforms here? What were the preconditions for success and guarantees of failure? How does one replicate them elsewhere? How were communities persuaded to get involved and invest their time and resources?
If UPA-II is serious about the "aam aadmi", how about placing police reform at the core of its agenda? How about pending legislation in UTs? How about making police modernisation grants to states contingent on police reforms? How about introducing reforms in Congress-ruled states? (Police
reform has been on the back burner in Rajasthan after the ruling party changed.) The unfortunate trade-off: VIPs don't need police reforms, citizens do. The elite know how to circumvent and work the system. The poor don't.
The writer is a Delhi-based economist email@example.com
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