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Policing for peanuts

In September 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked, "Unless the ‘beat constable’ is brought into the vortex of our counter-terrorist strategy, our capacity to pre-empt future attacks would be severely limited." This was quickly picked up by the media, and the "beat constable" was placed in the centre of the public debate on national security.

There is, however, a disconnect between what the prime minister says, and what the Government does. The police constable currently earns between Rs 3050-4590, at par with lowest categories of government employees. The Sixth Pay Commission, in its great munificence, has recommended a hike of about Rs 150-310 in the constable’s scales, increasing his pay to between Rs 3200-4900. This is the bright side. Many states have scales well below centrally stipulated levels. Gujarat, for instance, has a current scale of Rs 2750-4400. There are rare exceptions, like in Kerala, where the scale stands at Rs 5930-9590.

Not only are constables grossly underpaid; they suffer abysmal working conditions. Across India, "housing satisfaction" for the police — the proportion of serving personnel who are provided family quarters — stands at a disgraceful 29.3 per cent. In India’s capital — boasting "global city" ambitions — it is an even lower 19.97 per cent. Thus, a majority of constables leave their families behind in their villages, seeing them rarely, on grudgingly provided leaves of absence. Those who bring their families to their place of posting, particularly in cities, end up living in illegal slums and tenements. Thus, the very condition of their daily existence constitutes a breach of the law!

Working conditions are no better. Outside the metropolis, facilities in police stations are, at best, rudimentary. In rural areas — particularly in ill-governed states — the police operate out of structures that are often worse than cattle sheds. Here, a BPR&D study notes, "across the country... they are asked to put in consistently 16 to 18 hours of duty on a continuous basis". In many police stations and posts, far from fighting the terrorists and insurgents they are routinely pitted against, policemen lack even the minimal capacities to defend themselves. Since a majority of constables retire at the rank at which they join, only a small proportion attains the rank of head constable; a miniscule number rises to the rank of sub-inspector or inspector. Career frustration adds to this deadly cocktail.

There is, moreover, a complete mismatch between the criteria of recruitment and training on the one hand, and the increasing complexity of the tasks a modern police force is required to handle. The minimum qualification for recruitment is a Class 10 pass; some states have pushed that up to 12; a few have reduced it to 8 so that "rural people have better chances of getting the job". These barely literate recruits are variously pushed through around a year of "training" (this has, in at least one case, been reduced to six months) that principally consists of marching up and down on a parade ground, physical training, arms training (in many cases, comprising just a single field firing practice) and a few desultory lectures on police regulations and law.

The constable, moreover, has been transformed, through sustained processes of class denigration by the media, the courts, the political leadership and what passes for "civil society", into an object of widespread contempt and, as one serving police officer expresses it, into a "convenient lightning rod that attracts the charged fury of our so-called civil society". In sum, the constable operates in "the most degrading conditions that can be humanly inflicted, in one of the most volatile societies in the world".

And this constable — barely educated, ill-trained, ill-equipped and held in wide contempt — is expected to effectively tackle a 21st century scourge like terrorism. Indeed, he is expected to do this while displaying a sophisticated understanding of the niceties of the law, and the subtle exercise of powers relating to arrest, custody, search, seizure, bail, surveillance and the use of force!

In our age of liberalisation and globalisation, this makes sense: you get what you pay for. India is not paying for a modern and efficient policing system. India is not paying for a professional policeman. India is not paying for security. India cannot, consequently, be secure. The beat constable in India will have to be reinvented, in terms of educational and training profiles, equipment, living and working conditions and, crucially, his status in society, before he can be "brought into the vortex of our counter-terrorist strategy".

(Published in Indian Express, October 3, 2008)






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