Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Hold police officers accountable

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Oct 07

The squalid political shenanigans playing out in Karnataka should cause no surprise. That’s politics for you, even in democracies like France, Italy and the United States, which consider themselves “developed”. But in all those countries, citizens can swallow their disgust for the politicians, look away (note the western trend of falling numbers of voters) and get on with their well-ordered lives. Not so in India, where the rot has spread --- seeping downwards or upwards, nobody really knows --- until the disregard of ethics has gridlocked almost every avenue of life.

All that the common man demands is some order in his existence, the implementation of a set of customs and laws. This is not unreasonable; the social contract envisaged by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau involved citizens surrendering certain freedoms to the state (enjoyable pastimes like pillage and plunder) in exchange for law, order and peace. The alternative to that, said Hobbes, was what many Indians believe already plays out in the fabric of life in this country: “a war of every man against every man”.

The signs all indicate a breakdown of order. From growing public lynchings in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, to areas in the north-east where the only order is that imposed by armed groups; from the roads of Delhi where speeding buses mow down pedestrians who themselves violate rules by spilling onto the road; from the growing acceptance of fake encounters in place of building a case and obtaining a conviction; from the experience of citizens who are forced to pay bribes to lodge a report with the guardians of our law. Across the country, the state enforcement machinery has abdicated its end of the social contract. Ask the aam aadmi across India and he will unhesitatingly tell you: his biggest problem is clothed in khaki, not khadi.

If verification is required of the disarray in the police, take a look at the week’s news headlines. The Prime Minister has urged police reforms, warning of growing public disillusionment. An inquiry in UP is turning up concrete proof of what everyone knows to be standard practice: the corrupt recruitment of thousands of policepersons. In West Bengal, there is growing conviction that the Kolkata Police stage-managed the murder of Rizwan-ur-Rehman, allegedly at the instance of an industrialist, whose daughter Rizwan had the gumption to marry.

But it is the police’s failure at internal security that causes, perhaps, the greatest concern. Last week Dr Manmohan Singh all but pointed out that police failure at internal security was negating the armed forces’ success at safeguarding the borders. Police investigations have still to unearth the culprits in a string of bombings from the Samjhauta Express to Hyderabad. The doctor pronounced a simple prescription: “greater discipline, lesser politicisation and zero corruption.”

Interestingly, two out of the PM’s three prescriptions must be driven from within the police; this is a simple matter of leadership. But with the senior police leadership unwilling to step up to the plate, they have passed the buck to the National Police Mission, which has been tasked to “develop a culture of excellence” within the police. This is abdication of responsibility; only direct leadership by police officers can build an ethos of achievement amongst India’s 13.4 lakh policepersons, a force larger than the Indian Army, which consumes an annual budget of Rs 20,000 crores. But police officers, bred in a culture of sycophancy and corruption, change nothing; nobody holds them to account.

Take the example of Delhi, which boasts of the world’s biggest metropolitan force of 60,000 policemen, on each of whom the government spends Rs 2.4 lakh rupees a year. There are 36 policemen for every square kilometre of the city, but what they achieve remains a mystery. Driving through the city, one is assailed by the sight of rules being violated every minute of the day --- straight-ahead lanes are blocked by cars turning right, red lights are run, zebra crossings are parked upon --- but the policemen, like Gandhi’s monkeys, see no evil.

The khaki-clad officers, meanwhile, remain ensconced in their offices. Unlike their counterparts in the armed forces, there is no tradition of going around their areas of responsibility and overseeing, first hand, the functioning of their subordinates. Army battalion commanders are sacked without ado for the ineffectiveness of their subordinates. But, in the police, as long as the bosses are kept happy and political wires are not being crossed, promotions and postings flow in smoothly.

Making policing effective is a matter of vital strategic concern for India. Economic progress, societal stability, and the rule of law are inextricably linked with policing. The conduct of a country’s politicians, the delivery of governance, the conditions for citizens to work productively, the smooth utilisation of infrastructure and an effective framework for economic activity --- all these are essential for development. None materialise without being policed effectively.

India cannot afford any longer to blame police ineffectiveness on some nebulous systemic failure. Police officers must be called to account and police reforms must find a way to hold them answerable for what happens under their charge. There have always been honest police officers who would respond to such a change, but as the culture of corruption spreads, the numbers are dwindling.

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