police the state

Here’s why India is never going to be safe for women

August 31, 2013
August 31, 2013

A few days ago, after news of the sexual assault case in Mumbai broke out, someone on Twitter said something that got me thinking. A female resident of Mumbai, presumably, lashed out after seeing the umpteenth tweet asking women in Mumbai to “take care” and “be safe.”

Enough of this patronizing nonsense, she said. Instead of asking women to “take care” it was time that men actually did something to make the city safer for women.

In the days since that attack, such outbursts from men and women alike have become common. And they have been part of a much broader collection of discussion and debates about women’s safety. There are several concurrent threads to these debates: How can we teach our men to respect women better? Is violence against women an expression of social faults, if so which ones? How can these faults be alleviated? How does the portrayal of women, women’s issues and violence against women in mass media play a role in making things better or worse? Should minors involved in sex crimes be treated as adults? What can we do to make our neighborhoods safer? More recently there has been substantial debate on the trivializing of the idea of rape in the form of jokes and in other contexts not directly related to sex crimes.

Essentially, I suppose we are all trying to figure out how India can be made safer and more empathetic for all women. And these lines of questioning are legitimate. They might eventually help us make our cities, towns, and homes safer. But not immediately, not right now.

Right now, make no mistake about it, we need something that forms the foundation of a safe society: a functioning law-and-order system. No amount of soul searching, cultural self-flagellation, sex education, local activism, and behavioral conditioning will succeed unless our streets are well-policed and our courts function with speed and efficiency.

And this is exactly why I am afraid India will remain an unsafe country for women for the foreseeable future. Now I know this is not the message that many campaigners for women’s safety want to hear. Many of them are optimistic that some kind of governmental or non-governmental campaigning will make India safer. But as long these campaigns are divorced from a substantial overhaul of law and order mechanisms, they will not work.

Let us just take the case of of the city of Mumbai, arguably India’s most commercially important metropolis. Mumbai has a sanctioned police strength of approximately 45,000 officers. Around 3,000 of these posts are currently vacant. The effective number police on the streets are even lower. The New Indian Express recently said that Mumbai had a serving police force of 33,000 officers.

Earlier this month, in response to a Right To Information request, Mumbai police revealed that in the first two months of this year 27,740 police personnel had been deployed on VIP security duty, generally meaning they guard politicians. It is unclear if these deployments were short or long term. But there is no question that this substantially reduces the number of police officers the city actually needs on its streets.

An optimistic estimate suggests that, on an ongoing basis, Mumbai police has around 20,000 police taking care of its population of around 20 million residents. Therefore, Mumbai enjoys an effective police coverage of approximately 100 police officers per 100,000. (This number can vary somewhat depending on how you approximate police and population. But by my reckoning, it gets no better than around 165 per 100,000.) The United Nations recommends coverage where a population of 100,000 are served by 220 to 250 police officers.

What about courts? It is common knowledge that Indian courts have millions of cases pending at any given point in time. Yet another Right To Information request, filed by the same applicant in June, found 49,170 cases of crimes against women pending in courts across the state of Maharashtra (Mumbai is its capital). This number has increased by 40% between 2008 and 2012. Of the 14,414 rape cases tried in Maharashtra last year, 13,388 remain pending.

To be sure, better police and faster courts will not solve these problems alone, and columnist Praveen Swami explains this, but I can think of no conceivable solution that does not include better police and faster courts as key elements.

The need for immediate intervention is staring us in the face. So why don’t the people who run Mumbai, Maharashtra or India see this? What prevents them from overhauling the police force and legal system? Why does law minister after law minister lament about the masses of pending cases in Indian courts … and then actually do nothing radical about it?

This situation is doubly ludicrous when you consider that the government is also struggling to create sufficient jobs each year to occupy its exploding youth demographic. The nation is simultaneously drowning in both unemployed youth and undelivered public services.

Is it because these reforms are overly complex?

Cleaning up the courts is admittedly complex. But surely hiring a few thousand policemen can’t be as complex as rolling out multi-billion dollar job guarantees, food security or biometric identity schemes? Those are all initiatives the government has somehow managed to undertake.

Is it too expensive?

One estimate puts the annual budget of Mumbai’s police force at about 6 billion rupees (or $91 million). Almost all of this, around 85%, goes toward paying salaries. Can Mumbai, the beating heart of India’s economy afford to, say, double this? Given that the budget of the city of Mumbai is 280 billion rupees ($4 billion), and the city has a GDP which is at least 10 times as much, an escalation wouldn’t break the bank.

Then why not?

Your guess is as good as mine. But I think it is because overhauling Mumbai’s police or drawing up a radical plan to create new courts and hire new judges is exactly the kind of granular reform that, from a political perspective, Indian governments find difficult to execute. And unless these reforms deliver an immediate return (and one that can be politically leveraged), most stakeholders aren’t going to be interested in at all. In a given term in office there are only so many fights you can fight. So why pick the tough ones?

This is perhaps why the life cycles of legislation such as the Food Security Bill are relatively short, while those of a politically unsexy but economically important nature such as a new Companies Bill take decades.

There is a peculiar pattern that often pops up when “India’s problems” are discussed on social networks or in the comments section of news websites. Somehow while all of India’s problems are all universal—rapes happen in the US also, corruption happens in China also, malnutrition happens in Indonesia also—all the solutions to India’s problems become unique and complex. Police reform is complex, education is complex, food is complex, taxation is complex and on and on.

Not always. Some of India’s problem are simple things with simple solutions that unfortunately have no political capital.

I am afraid efficient courts and more and better police are among these problems. And I don’t think we should expect major reforms any time soon. Of course I hope I am proven completely wrong and Mumbai, and Delhi, and every other local administration immediately implements steps to improve law and order. Volunteer action, social awareness campaigns and neighborhood watch programs can all make marginal improvements. They will not, however, make up for a law and order system that works.

Until that happens—and I have no intention of being patronizing or sexist here—my fellow citizens will have to take care and be safe.

Follow Sidin on Twitter @sidin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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