15 years after SC’s order, police reforms languish
On the 15th anniversary of Police Reforms Day, here is a question — why hasn’t the Supreme Court (SC)’s order on police reforms, delivered on September 22, 2006, been implemented yet? What are the impediments to reforms aimed at making the police more efficient, free from extraneous influences, and responsive to people’s needs?
The first direction of the SC was the selection of a police chief from a list of three senior-most officials, prepared by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), and second, ensuring a fixed tenure for officers in operational posts. The court then directed the constitution of Police Establishment Board (PEB), comprising the director-general of police (DGP) and senior officers, to issue transfer orders of officers below deputy superintendent of police (DSP)-rank and formulating proposals of DSPs and above. These orders were meant to give requisite autonomy to the police.
Putting the imprimatur firmly of a people’s police, the reforms also envisaged constitution of a State Security Commission (SSC), headed by the home minister and comprising the leaders of Opposition, senior officials and members of the public to oversee police role and functions. A police complaint authority to entertain complaints against the police was also to be set up at the district-level as well as in the state. And finally, to make the police more professional and focused, investigation and law and order functions were to be separated with different officers handling them.
The reforms stumbled at the first test. No chief minister (CM) would let go his or her power to choose their DGP, to gain the latter’s personal loyalty. The CM’s claim is their right, since police is a state subject. The idea of fixed tenures is anathema to politicians, babus and even some senior cops because it takes away their power to wield authority. PEBs face the brunt of their ire, with informal orders coming from the top to tweak the transfer list. A year ago, a state earned the dubious distinction of one set of station house officers (SHOs) orders passed on note-sheets of a set of legislators, only to be cancelled for the posting of another set of SHOs on note-sheets of another set of legislators. No government takes the formation of an SSC, which would ensure immunity to the police from political pressure seriously. And it is the same story with the police complaints authority, which has a mere advisory role.
The only SC direction, which has indeed been implemented, is the separation of investigation and law and order functions because this does not directly hurt politicians and bureaucrats, though a human resource crunch is proving to be a great hindrance. A recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on the Delhi Police reveals the shortages faced by the force even in the Capital.
And therein, lies the story of reforms, buried under mounds of files in the home ministry. Justice KT Thomas, while reviewing the progress of reforms, was aghast at the ingenious ways adopted by the states to skirt them. The SC watches helplessly as states pass acts or executive instructions, ignoring the court’s key directions. The Centre could have enacted the Model Police Act, 2006, prepared by Soli Sorabjee, senior Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the public, but it refrained from doing so. Meanwhile, other reports by illustrious names such as Julio Ribeiro, K Padmanabhaiah and VS Malimath lie in the archives, largely ignored. These reports incorporated changes suggested by another report of National Police Commission (1977), also lying in the archives.
Is there hope? It is unrealistic to expect CMs to allow autonomy to the police beyond a certain degree. In every democracy, the police function under a mayor or elected government, and in ours, where grassroots politics constantly hovers round thanas, kachahris and tehsils, it’s difficult to conceive of a police force that is impervious to political overtures.
But reforms are not only about tenures and autonomy. Despite the fixed two-year tenure of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief, the organisation’s actions, in some cases, have smacked of political bias. In a democracy, the police must act as per the law of the land and should be accountable to the public.
To achieve the Prime Minister’s vision of a SMART and efficient police, the Indian Police Service (IPS) leadership across the states must sound the bugle, calling for wide-ranging reforms within the system.
First, the chiefs should stamp out the misuse of the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act (UAPA) and Sedition Act. Second, the police must not pander to communal or caste interests. Third, crimes against women should be taken as top priority. Four, speeding up processes, innovating and ensuring a wider public interface should be the hallmark of the reformed approach in the digital age. And finally, cutting out the deadwood and taking stringent action against lawless elements within the force are also imperative.
In terms of process, DGPs must set out a bold and purposeful agenda for their annual conferences, which should be open to the public, with agenda items also invited from the public. The display of police expertise may be an internal affair but the outcomes should be for all to see.
Institutionally, the ministry of home affairs is unwieldy and obsolete for new-age policing. An internal security ministry must be carved out, to be manned by professionals only and supervised by the national security adviser (NSA) and home minister. Wide-ranging reforms also call for closer interaction with corporate India, industry, IITs, universities, NGOs, retired professionals, and startups, among others, to enhance capability in dealing with online crimes, Artificial Intelligence, training, modern weaponry, law and order, attitudinal changes and in dealing with crimes against women.
There are welcome signs from a few Members of Parliament calling for surveillance reforms and parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies. Similarly, think-tanks, civil society, NGOs and academia too should raise their voice in support for wider reforms. The time is ripe to enact the model Police Act of 2006 for the whole country to usher in new-age policing to match the vision of a new India.
(This was first published in Hindustan Times)