Let’s Not Take India’s Crime Statistics Seriously

Suppressing crimes is an exalted art form practiced as a matter of reflex in our police stations.

Police patrol as people queue outside a branch of the State Bank of india  to exchange old high denomination bank notes in Old Delhi, November 10, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/Files

Police patrol as people queue outside a branch of the State Bank of india to exchange old high denomination bank notes in Old Delhi, November 10, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/Files

Another annual report on crimes in India is upon us, and our mainstream media is dishing out its kindergarten understanding of crime statistics as laboratory research findings. India’s reputed national newspapers are busy looking for a black cat in a dark room at night, not realising that the cat doesn’t exist. Here’s why.

Let’s start with Delhi. Total Indian Penal Code (IPC) cases registered in Delhi was 64,882 in 1998 and the figure for 2012 was 54,287. This means Delhi saw a 16% decline in the number of crimes between 1998 and 2012. But what this shows is that the station house officers of the Delhi police indulged in the widespread burking of crimes during those 14 years. Thanks to B.S. Bassi, former Delhi police commissioner (August 2013-February 2016), things changed. He took a conscious decision to change the mindset of police personnel posted in Delhi’s police stations and encouraged them to register all cognisable offences reported to them. As a result, total IPC crimes recorded raced from 54,287 in 2012 to 80,184 in 2013, 155,654 in 2014 and 191,377 in 2015 (an increase of over 250% in three years).

The recorded number of robberies was 608 in 2012. It jumped to 1,245 in 2013, 6,464 in 2014 and to 7,407 in 2015 (a surge of over 1,350% in three years). Suppressing crimes was not just a part of life for Delhi police before that; it was life itself. It still is, in many cases. Non-registration of crime is closely linked to the performance and evaluation of police officers.

If this is what has happened (and is happening) in the national capital, in the police stations not far from our parliament and right under the nose of the home ministry, we can imagine what is happening in the rest of the country. Suppressing crimes is an exalted art form practiced as a matter of reflex in our police stations. Truthful registration of crime has never been a cherished ideal for our SHOs and their IPS leadership beyond the seminar rooms and police training academies. Behind every chief minister who wanted to tom-tom his (and her, with a hat-tip to Mayawati and J. Jayalalithaa) achievements on the law and order front, there is a set of willing and able hand-picked director generals of police who are pliant and pliable enough to implement the policy of systematic crime suppression across states.

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According to the Safety Trends and Reporting of Crime survey conducted by a Mumbai based think-tank, IDFC Institute, only 6-8% of victims of theft in four major Indian cities lodged an FIR (first information report) with the police. The remaining 92-94% are not reflected in any official record. In certain cases, victims themselves refrained from approaching the police. In the rest of the cases, the police did not register the case for various reasons.

India’s mainstream media needs to resist its natural urge to rank our states and metro cities in terms of cases registered and must stop playing the game of first-second-third while discussing crime statistics. To understand crime data and its integrity, we need to accept that the data collected by the NCRB (National Crime Record Bureau) is contaminated and not clean enough to be used as primary data for research and analysis. We need to distinguish between an incident of crime and its reporting, and between its reporting and its recording. That is, not all incidents of crime get reported and not all reported crimes are registered in our police stations. Our police stations being what they are, not all victims come to them to report crimes. Lack of trust in police is one of the major reasons behind their reluctance.

Official crime records, curated by the NCRB and accounting for registered crimes, are not an accurate or adequate measure of crime. The data loss between incidence and reporting as well as between reporting and recording of crimes and its far-reaching consequences has been highlighted by the constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India in the famous 2013 Lalita Kumari case: “Such a large number of FIRs are not registered every year, which is a clear violation of the rights of the victims of such a large number of crimes. Burking of crime leads to dilution of the rule of law in the short run; and also has a very negative impact on the rule of law in the long run since people stop having respect for rule of law. Thus, non-registration of such a large number of FIRs leads to a definite lawlessness in the society.” The data loss between incidence and reporting of crimes (as well as between their reporting and recording) is too significant – both in absolute and relative terms – to be brushed under the carpet using the pretext of lack of any other tool of quantifiable measurement.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Not registering crime cripples the process of justice by shutting out the victim from the constitution-mandated scheme of things and allowing the criminal to get away and to make crime a career, with its structural consequences for the rule of law as the bedrock of democracy. It also inequitably affects the poor, disadvantaged and marginalised more because they don’t have access to private modes of security and are solely dependent on the state police machinery for survival and protection. The systematic burking that is going on in our police stations creates its own political economy. Organised police corruption is its clearest manifestation. The practice of SHOs employing private persons to act as bribe collectors, known as “zero police”, is an example of this systematic loot. In the wake of the sensational custodial death in Sangli and the involvement of a civilian acting as “zero police” in the conspiracy and its execution, Maharashtra DGP Satish Mathur said there was “no recognised institution of zero police”. He told Indian Express, “All units are instructed to dispense with any such unofficial arrangement if existing in their units.”

The house of crime statistics is built on the plinth of FIR registration. An FIR is a court-mandated legal document that sets the process of police investigation in motion. More often than not, police refuse to register an FIR mostly because it will help them artificially lower crime rate in their station and achieve target and tom-tom their achievement. It could also be because the accused is an influential person. Lack of police accountability to victims of crime is a given in India. And all this is happening under the IPS leadership. They can’t claim ignorance and helplessness.

After the December 16, 2013 gangrape case in Delhi, the home ministry had instructed all states and union territories to prosecute cops who fail to file an FIR on jurisdictional grounds under the IPC.

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The home ministry said there should be clear instruction by state governments that the delay over the determination of jurisdiction leads to avoidable wastage of time which impacts the victim and also leads to offenders getting an opportunity to slip from the clutches of law and that should be stopped.

The Supreme Court has also taken note. The police must compulsorily register an FIR on receiving a complaint if the information discloses a cognisable offence, and no preliminary inquiry is permissible in such a situation, a five-judge constitution bench ruled in November 2013. Compulsory registration of the FIR was to ensure transparency not only in the criminal justice delivery system but also “judicial oversight”. It was the first step in “access to justice” for a victim. “It [FIR] upholds the ‘Rule of Law’ inasmuch as the ordinary person brings forth the commission of a cognizable crime to the knowledge of the State,” the bench said.

The latest parliamentary standing committee on home affairs, headed by former Union home minister P. Chidambaram, in its recently-tabled report said, “The committee strongly recommends that the government should consider making refusal of registration of FIR by police personnel a criminal offence and action be taken against such erring police personnel.”

Our mainstream media should do well to remember that the heaviest millstone around the neck of our police leadership is the fact that the largest number of complaints/grievances against the police in our country is about non-registration of an FIR. There is no point looking for a black cat in a dark room at night.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.