May 11, 2001


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Dr R K Raghavan

Whither Indian Police?

The complainant has often to pay a fee for having his complaint recorded. More money is extorted as the investigation proceeds. When the officer goes down to the spot he is a burden often to the whole village.

This is how the Fraser Commission (1902) described the Indian Police. Recording its views on the same subject nearly eight decades later, the National Police Commission -- otherwise known as the Dharma Vira Commission after its distinguished civilian chairman -- said in 1980:

What the (Fraser) Commission said would more or less fully apply even to the present situation. If anything, the position has worsened.

Reflecting on the state of policing two decades later and a week after calling it a day from the IPS, I am not too sure that the scene has changed any greatly. My feeling is one of anguish over the force's failure to even slightly push its image in the public eye since Independence. There are some colleagues who believe that, the image, actually, has worsened and reached its nadir.

It is against my grain to be too harsh and undermine an institution that is undoubtedly one element in our polity, which, along with a few others, has contributed greatly to the stability of our democracy. At the same time, I can be accused of hypocrisy if I gloss over its many failings which have rightly earned for it the common man's opprobrium.

I have no illusion that I am a physician who can diagnose all the ills of the system. But the police station and the police constable are too diseased to call for the skills of an eminent specialist. It is these two components, which will remain in focus here.

Be honest and tell me whether you will ever venture into a police station on your own to seek any service! As for me, I will not! Or, will you approach a traffic constable to get directions to reach a place that you can't locate? Normally not, unless you are steeped in a crisis and you don't have a soul to help.

This is unfortunate, yet true. I am convinced that this need not be the case if the political executive, police leaders and the community could come together to evolve a consensus on how to raise the quality of policing in our country.

Several commissions -- mostly those appointed by state governments -- have said a lot on how to reform the police with a view to making them more people-friendly. These recommendations are either gathering dust in the secretariats or are too impractical to be implemented. The blame for the morass lies partly at the doors of the IPS leadership. One can't get away all the time pointing a finger at the government. Attitudinal changes do not require government money, and here, it is the police leadership, which has to be proactive.

A reform that cannot help to transform the constable -- now considered ill mannered, brutal and corrupt -- to a smart and respected public servant is not worth a second look. The executive and the public at large dismiss the constabulary as a rude and rapacious lot with whom a self-respecting person can just not interact.

Remember that this assessment of the constabulary writes off about 90 per cent of the police workforce as a useless lot. And you should be extremely credulous to still expect efficient policing. Can any modern organisation deliver the goods with just 10 per cent of its staff?

Till about a few decades ago, we had a constabulary that was at best semi-literate if not downright illiterate. This is no longer the case. We now have a reasonably educated force -- graduates and post-graduates are no longer a freak -- that can understand the essentials of good policing. Policemen are definitely better paid than before, although a much better wage is warranted if you reckon the arduous nature of their work and the havoc they can cause if they are discontented. Why is it then we still do not have a corps that could compare with the London Bobby or his counterpart in most of the west?

There are at least two reasons why we are stuck with some of the shocking specimens at the cutting edge of our forces. While a substantial number undoubtedly get in on merit, quite a few sneak in after paying hefty sums to recruiters. Remember that those opting for the selection at the lower levels are those who come from economically disadvantaged sections of society. How do they muster the money required to pay up those who have a say or claim they have a say in recruitment?

Scandals in police selection are nationwide. The sum demanded for selection is often managed by candidates through loans extended at usurious rates of interest. Coming into the police after such an investment, it will be unnatural for them not to use their authority to quickly recover the money by hook or by crook. This is often said of doctors who pay a huge capitation fee for getting into medical courses. It is possibly more true of many policemen.

A second reason why we don't get the best of talent is that a constable can hardly aspire to rise to the higher echelons of the police. Till a few decades ago it was not unusual for him to retire in the same rank even after 30 years of service. Thanks to some imaginative leaders, this appalling situation has changed a little. If one has not been a total disaster or has not committed crime on the beat, he can now aspire to bow out at least as a head constable, if not a sub-inspector.

Is this enough incentive? Perhaps not. Here, the rationale of having middle-level recruitments, including that to the IPS, is severely under scrutiny. There are only a few countries in the world, which have entry at such high levels as in the IPS. This is not for a moment to cast any aspersion on the IPS, which has undoubtedly thrown up incredible talent that has lent form and substance to policing in India.

We have a number of brilliant young men and women who adorn the constabulary. They have academic accomplishments that are in no way insignificant compared to their supervisors. How do we motivate them?

The National Police Commission had recommended the abolition of direct recruitment to the rank of deputy superintendent. If this had been accepted, there was a chance of many constables and sub-inspectors rising to this rank. This was however spurned because an avenue of patronage was being taken away from state governments who, incidentally, have no say on the selection of IPS officers.

More than 10-15 DSPs are taken in directly every year by each government. This practice clogs the hierarchy and drastically reduces the promotion opportunities to those rising from the ranks of constable and sub-inspector. Unless a constable is reasonably convinced that good performance will push him up to the rank of DSP in about 15-20 years, you cannot expect him to be either honest or hardworking.

Police stations with their red brick exterior are hardly inviting. They evoke fear and revulsion. If they need to be distinguishable from a distance, why can't we opt for a more friendly and elegant hue, say brown or pastel? The fundamental question is, how do we render police stations into polite and responsive community service centres, which do not repel the honest and law abiding citizen? This is something that has not received enough attention.

Is the appointment of a PRO one solution? Not necessarily, if there is no change in the ambience or attitudes. Training, both entry-level and in-service, is one way of sensitisation. The fact that training inputs are quickly forgotten after getting into the field -- sometimes trainees are asked to forget what they had learnt in training schools -- describes the situation effectively. I believe that practice is better than precept.

Supervisory officers, both the IPS and non-IPS genre, will have to set the example. If they behave rudely, their subordinates take the cue from them. My own impression is that many senior officers are extremely curt, not only to their subordinates but to the public as well.

I know that it is far easier to frown than smile when you are under pressure. But, am I not right when I say that there is basically something wrong with the Indian psyche. 'Can I help you?' is the sweet voice that greets you at public offices in most of the west. How many of us do this in India? Unless there is indoctrination of the constabulary and others at the police stations in favour of civilised behaviour, common courtesy, and there is a fear of penalty for discourteous conduct, things can just not change.

Organisational changes are not brought about overnight. They need careful planning after careful assessment of the environment. But then they also need leaders with a vision and a revolutionary zeal. Do we have enough of them? Or, have they been stymied by an over-powerful system? I can only pose two questions to the IPS leadership, questions which Gary Hamel (with whom C K Prahlad wrote the path-breaking Competing for the Future) raises in his latest book Leading the Revolution (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

Do you care so much about the magnificent difference you can make in this world that you're willing to try and change it with your bare heart? Do you care enough about doing something so wonderful and unexpected for customers that you're willing to put your comfy job on the line?

Is any IPS officer listening?

Dr R K Raghavan retired as director of the Central Bureau of Investigation recently. This is his first column.

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