The overall police strength of India is around 25 lakh. Of these about five lakh are armed policemen and the rest are civil policemen. The former are usually kept in reserve and deployed in cases of large-scale breakdown in public order. The number of civil policemen per lakh of population for India as a whole is 155.
A huge addition to the force has happened in last few years for the country to reach this number. Even the sanctioned police strength of most states is well below the world average in terms number of civil police personnel per lakh population. While Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Kerala employ some policemen in excess of sanctioned strength, in general, there is a shortfall.
The extent of deficit compared to the sanctioned strength runs up to 55% in various States. The worst deficit is Uttar Pradesh, which has a shortfall of 2 lakh policemen compared to its sanctioned strength of 377,000 policemen. UP also happens to top in many of the Indian Penal Code crimes in the country. Bihar is perhaps the least policed state with the number of policemen at 70 per lakh people.
The consequence is that the existing policemen have to work much longer than the normal eight duty hours per day. Worse still, they have to often forgo weekly off and some times they do not get a single day off in a whole month. Such conditions are unthinkable in any organized sector in the country barring the armed forces. The police also lack mobility, as the number of vehicles with the police force is limited.
It is difficult to lay hands on authentic data on police personnel and system pertaining to rural India or the data on rural crimes. The National Crime Report Bureau statistics gives the breakup of crime data by states and has separate tables for crimes by cities, giving the cities a rank on each type of crime.
But it does not segregate data on crime by rural or urban location of its occurrence. Presumably, if with the blessing of the local police administration one were to devote intense efforts, over weeks if not months, data at least for a particular district could be dug up. What follows in this essay is thus based on incomplete data.
Rural policing in Maharashtra and Gujarat follows an interesting pattern. Till well after Independence, each village had an honorary position of Police Patil (in Gujarat, Patel). The Patil was usually a well built, macho looking man with big moustache whose very presence would inspire a little awe in the eyes of the onlooker. Not surprisingly, he would typically be from a high, typically martial caste.
I remember meeting a retired Police Patel in Moti Dhariyal, a village in Chanasma taluk of Mehsana district in Gujarat. I did the fieldwork for my PhD there in 1987. Though of an advanced age, he was an imposing man, a patriarch, with large pointed moustaches. When I explained the purpose of my visit, all he had to do was to send his servant and call out 20-30 men. They gathered in 15-20 minutes. He simply told them to fix time with me and give me all the information I needed. I had no trouble at all. His word was like a command.
Deterrence is key
Deterrence was the key principle in administering law and order in the village and these high-caste, landed Police Patils fitted the role to perfection. I am told that in North India the equivalent is called Village Guard or a Chowkidar. That very term seems to deflate the position of its deterrent value. The terms invoke very different image: from the awe inspiring imposing Police Patil whose mere loud voice can scare the pants off a petty criminal, to the dissipated looking man sheepishly hanging on the lips of his urban superior!
But the reality could be different. These police Patils are expected to be well versed in all goings on in their village. They are supervised by the SHO of the Police Station, which may be located miles away in a nearby block town. The SHO in turn reports to the District Officer in charge of Rural Policing and he to the District Superintendent.
In any case, the total number of personnel seems to be the sum of one guard per village and about a few hundred policemen of all the police stations together. All controlling rural law and order of a typical district with 500 to 1,000 villages and rural population running up to a million or two.
It would thus appear that we perhaps were once a very law abiding country, at least in so far as cognizable offences are concerned. As such, even with the low level of policing, people lived in peace. After all, the police in reality have the role of acting as deterrents, to create a sense of security for the citizens.
The crime rate per se depends also upon the extent of criminal tendency among the people. Hence, the extent to which the strength of the police is directly related to actual crime rates is moot. Aside from just the sheer number, who comprises the police force is also important to consider. If Police Patils are like the patriarch I met in Mehsana, they come from a certain social background and carry a certain baggage. It is naïve to expect them to be free of these biases.
At least as reported in the media, the number of crimes in rural areas is rising. The type of crimes that persistently get high attention these days relate to attacks on Muslims and marginalized communities and crimes against women. It is arguable that given the small number of police personnel in rural areas and their social backgrounds, a large number of crimes were earlier not reported and recorded.
Whether this argument is tenable or not, some facets of the circumstance are apparent. The existing police force is overworked and the presence of police force is patchy and low; and crime rates are rising. Whether the social background of rural police influences the extent of deterrence they exert on potential perpetrators of such crimes is again at the moment a matter of conjecture.
The government has increased the strength of the police force significantly in the last few years, but it would appear that there is a case to increase the strength further in the under-policed states such as Bihar in particular and all rural areas in general. It also appears tenable to argue that all the police personnel to be hired in future may come from marginalized, oppressed and tribal communities, minorities and women, as these groups tend to be victims of the seemingly increased crime rate.