Police reforms are urgently needed: a modern police force is necessary for a modern nation. Yet, reforms have been put off year after year until the task has become so gargantuan that everyone is afraid to touch it.
Trying to do everything all at once is not the right way forward. An ethos of continuous reform needs first to be broadly inculcated.
A step-by-step process, beginning with some relatively easy reforms, the low-hanging fruit is better. It will help generate the confidence that reforms are something that not only should – but practically can – be effectively implemented, and that we can do it.
A lot is not right with the police in our country. The Police Act of 1861, still in force, was long ago overtaken by events. Every day crimes do not get the required attention, and more serious ones get shoddy treatment due to shortages of investigating officers and forensic resources.
Our justice delivery system, with a low record of conviction, is under severe stress. The person on the street is wary of khaki. What the Fraser Commission stated, in 1902, about the Indian police being “generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive and utterly failing to secure the confidence and the cordial cooperation of the people” is the picture of the police many present-day Indians share.
To be sure, the police are not a happy lot either. Year after year, many brave hearts sacrifice their lives in the call of duty, mostly forgotten once the commemoration ceremonies are over. Most, if not all, officers see the need clearly for wide-ranging reforms. They want better public relations and greater professionalism and are sick of the danda-wielding image.
So how does one begin to square this circle? I would urge an incremental and staged process. Start with the low-hanging fruit, learn how to manage the reform process, and then move ahead and take on more complex subjects.
Need for immediate reforms
Five simple reforms will help kick-start the machinery, generating the experiences necessary for taking the process further. None of this is rocket science, and some of my suggestions may seem simple or even simplistic, but nothing is inessential. Everything adds up, one thing catalyses another.
Start, first, with the simplest of measures. Improve the physical fitness of the police force by underlining the importance of discipline and respect for the uniform. That’s what professional and modern police forces the world over insist upon. If you are going to enhance his job content (below), you must first work on the self-image and the public image of a police officer. This would entail regular physical training and parade – required by the existing manuals but mostly ignored – a basic gymnasium in police stations, along with annual medical check-ups to weed out officers who remain unfit.
The second reform is also basic and seemingly cosmetic but has a deeper significance. Revamp the police station to make it look well-kempt and accessible. Remove the dump of discarded goods, provide drinking water at the entry point, and set up a help desk, staffed by a mannerly and competent constable. A resting hall for staff with clean toilets would be a welcome addition in most police stations.
Third, and proceeding further down the road of making ordinary police officers feel more respected, valued, and efficacious, revive an older practice of sainik sammelans, monthly gatherings where the foot soldiers and commanders sit together and can speak openly with one another. Regular sammelans will underwrite better communications and trust within the force, becoming an effective medium to disseminate (and act upon) reformatory messages, and a venue for grievance redressal. Let their commanders themselves give rank-and-file constables the posting of choice, dissuading them from making approaches to the high and influential. By itself, this one step will to a large extent curb the temptation toward nepotism and partisan conduct.
Fourth, and further deepening respect and instilling professionalism, it is time to formally empower constables/head-constables with the authority of investigating officers (IOs). For years, investigations have been routinely conducted by constables and head constables (so-called munshis) but in the name of senior officers. Today, there is no dearth of constables who are well-educated and computer savvy. Officially empowering them to become IOs will only be putting the stamp of approval on what is already standard operating procedure. It will have a twin effect of decreasing the load on senior officers, cutting delays, and raising the morale and self-worth of the lowest rung, promoting meritocracy and modernisation.
Last but hardly least, give the police force a weekly day off. Yes, that’s right! Policewomen and men can routinely go weeks without getting any time off for personal chores and family duties. Emergencies apart, the denial of a day off should not be routinised. Destressing the force will also raise self-worth, improving performance.
I offer these proposals by no means as the last words on these subjects but more as a means for getting the process underway. We do not have to wait for a final or a centralised solution. All but one of my suggestions can be implemented by individual commanders. Let the process begin – and a public dialogue with it.
Sudhir Pratap Singh is the treasurer of the Indian Police Foundation, a think tank on police reforms. He served in Indian Police Service for 35 years before his retirement in 2018. He served as Superintendent of Police in Jodhpur and many other districts, Deputy Inspector General in CBI, Inspector General in CISF and CRPF, and Director General of the National Security Guard.