Explainer: A history of police reforms in India
There have been hits and misses over the years — with a shortage crisis and a lackadaisical approach to implementing various recommendations on training and mindsets having plagued the force.
New Delhi: “After Independence, a lot of radical reforms were needed. Unfortunately, we lagged behind. Because of this, even today, the common perception is that one should stay away from police. Maybe a thought would have come to (your) minds today that once you wear the uniform, you control everything. Please don’t make this mistake. This will not improve the prestige of the uniform”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said these words last week while attending the first convocation of the Rashtriya Raksha University (RRU) in Gujarat as he stressed on the right training for the police, while adding the internal security apparatus of the country has lagged behind.
India largely continues to follow the Police Act of 1861, framed by the British. Even though the principal Act has been amended from time to time according to functional requirements and India has transformed into a major economic and political power in the world, the police are still in a frozen state.
The police reforms debate has been a long-standing one, spanning several decades since Independence. Over these years, several commissions have been set up at the highest levels of government and they have submitted their reports and recommendations for police reforms.
Some of the important committees which have looked into such reforms to transform the Indian police include the National Police Commission set up under the chairmanship of Dharm Vira in 1977, the Riberio committee on police reforms under the chairmanship of JF Riberio (1998), the Padmanabhaiah committee on police reforms (2000), the committee on reforms of criminal justice system under Justice VS Malimath (2000), the review committee headed by RS Mooshahary (2004).
Subsequently, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD), a Government of India think-tank which assesses and recommends measures to improve the policing system in the country, has also made several recommendations over the years.
Acting on a writ petition by former Uttar Pradesh director general of police (DGP), Prakash Singh, the Supreme Court also intervened in the matter.
In the landmark judgment, known as Prakash Singh & others vs Union of India, on September 22, 2006, the apex court directed all states to bring in police reforms.
In its seven directives, the court asked for constituting a State Selection Commission (SSC) to ensure that the state governments do not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on police; lay down broad policy guidelines; appoint police chiefs on merit and fix a tenure of two years; separate the investigation and law order functions of police; set up a Police Establishment Board (PEB) to decide transfers, postings, promotions, and other service-related matters.
Similarly, the Mooshahary committee report gave 49 recommendations for transforming the police into a professionally competent and service-oriented organisation. The thrust of the recommendations was on raising the professional standard of the police and improving their performance in police stations – both urban as well rural; giving importance to the role of police in the internal security of the state(s) as well as the country; addressing the core issues of recruitment, training, career progression and service conditions of police personnel; tackling complaints against the police with regard to non-registration of crime, arrests, abuse/misuse of power and authority etc; and insulating the police machinery from extraneous influences.
However, even after almost 16 years, the implementation of major recommendations of the committees and the directions of the Supreme Court has remained a far cry, with most states unwilling to follow the measures in letter and spirit. In fact, state governments have made efforts over the years to circumvent government directions.
For example, following the Supreme Court order, Bihar came up with a new police act in 2007, in which SSC members only had government members and it was stated that DGPs tenure of two years could be ended on "administrative grounds". In most states, the composition of SSC is not independent of political influence.
Also, only six states – Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have so far fully implemented the recommendation of the Mooshahary committee on separation of investigation from the law and order. States like Uttar Pradesh have said it is impractical for them to separate the two wings due to lesser manpower.
A police act drafting committee under the chairmanship of Dr Soli Sorabjee submitted a model police act in October 2006 containing 16 chapters for reforms in police, which included the decision of the Supreme Court. It emphasised the need for a professional police service in a democratic society, which is efficient, effective, responsive to the needs of the people and accountable to the rule of law.
It provides for the social responsibilities of the police and emphasises that the police would be governed by the principles of impartiality and human rights norms, with special attention to the protection of weaker sections, including minorities.
Since police is a state subject, the new Act was sent to states for consideration. To date, only 17 states — Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura and Uttarakhand — have either enacted the police Act or amended the existing Act.
There are several related factors for slow police reforms in the country. The educational background especially at the constable level is a major limitation in modernising the police force whether it is in terms of leveraging technology or upgrading to new processes. While there has been a shift in crime profile from traditional crimes to economic and cyber frauds, there is a shortage of resources available for utilisation by police departments.
Huge vacancies, particularly at the mid- and low-level, lead to police personnel performing multiple shifts, working overtime, and without getting any weekly off day. This, in turn, affects their physical and mental health. The latest government data suggests there are 5,31,737 vacancies against the sanctioned strength of 26,23,225 police personnel in state police forces, which is almost at a 21% shortfall. This has a direct bearing on the efficiency of the police. The increased stress levels due to shortages can sometimes lead to the police acting out their frustrations, at times on the people. This then compromises the overall performance of police in the discharge of their duties.
Apart from poor work-life balance, cops also have to work with limited resources at their disposal. Some police stations in the country lack even basic facilities such as drinking water, clean toilets, transport, telephones, staff, and funds for routine purchases which put extra pressure on them.
Training in the Indian police has also been lacklustre. The impact of poor training and slow modernisation of police leads to non-collection of evidence in heinous crimes as per established procedures, biological/ physical/ chemical/ digital evidence not being preserved at the crime scene and lack of scientific kits to collect evidence from the crime scene, hence low conviction rates. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the conviction rates in major crimes like murder, rape, kidnapping and abduction, rioting and hurt (including acid attack) are not more than 45%.
Another key reason often cited for a demotivated police force is slow career progression, especially constables, who form the highest strength in the police force. As per BPRD’s data, till 2020, the actual strength of constables in the state police force was 8,10,554, out of the total strength of police — 20,91,448, which is 38.75%.
The Mooshahary committee had recommended that at least three promotions should be given to the constables in their entire career. As noted by a department-related parliamentary standing committee on home affairs earlier this month, the system of promotion of constables is different in the states and most states do not follow incentive-linked promotion schemes or any kind of extraordinary performance-linked promotion schemes.
To decide all transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters for police officers, the Mooshahary committee recommended that a separate state-level PEB should be set up in each state for gazetted and non-gazetted ranks.
All these problems have led to police often being seen as insensitive towards the common man, especially among vulnerable sections.
Prakash Singh said the problems are immense and states are not willing to improve the image of the police. “If you look at the SC directions, you will see that the compliance by most states is on paper, less on the ground. The new acts passed or existing ones amended by them are in gross violation (of SC directions). Either the efforts have been made to dilute the SC directions or bypass them”.
He said there is a need to completely revamp the training of police, provide them modern facilities and shed the feudal mindset considering the gravity of national security and huge population.