India needs more than just money to truly reform its police

Brute force.
Brute force.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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The instances of police brutality across the globe have stirred grief and anger.

And yet, the death of George Floyd happened in a context that was entirely different from that of the alleged custodial deaths of J Jayaraj and his son, Bennicks Immanuel. While Black Lives Matter protests across the US called for defunding the police, in India, these reported killings asked for a complete reform of the police forces.

The call for police reform is not new, and the government has enabled several committees to create a roadmap to modernise the forces. This call has also been intensified when gangster Vikas Dubey was allegedly killed by the police in an encounter. And yet, change has been slow to come. Most of the Indian states, for instance, only spend 3% of their annual budgets towards maintaining the police force, and have widespread human resource shortages.

But simply more funds for the police is not going to reduce cases of brutality, according to Maja Daruwala, senior advisor for Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and editor of the India Justice Report. “It’s important to see if current spending is enough and properly utilised before reaching any conclusion on what better-policing costs,” she said.

In an interview with Quartz, Daruwala speaks of the problems with budgetary allocations for the police force, why it hasn’t been modernised, and what states can do immediately to improve the level of sensitisation among officers. Edited excerpts:

Is the amount that Indian states currently spend on their police force enough?

Policing is a state subject, and each state has its own autonomous police department. Expenditure by the states on their police force has a direct bearing on its core competency, for instance, in the form of available human resources and infrastructure. According to the India Justice Report, most states spent anywhere between 3% and 5% of their total budget (in 2015-16) on policing. For some states that were under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, this share was higher at 10%. About 90% of these budgetary allocations is spent on salaries since the police is a personnel-intensive service. The operational expense of running police stations or capacity building for personnel is therefore greatly reduced.

For the current financial year, the total union budget allocation for the police by the ministry of home affairs was Rs1.05 lakh crore ($15 billion), an increase of over Rs2,000 crore from the previous year. Under this budget, it has brought the per capita spend on police to approximately Rs873 ($11.63). This includes the spending on central forces and central schemes such as the modernisation of police forces (MPF).

Poor budgetary allocations do leave the police inadequately resourced and staffed, however current publicly available data is insufficient to conclude whether budgetary allocations are adequate or if utilisation is effective or will improve performance if increased.

Are states spending adequately on the modernisation of police forces?

As of 2019, a number of states remain unable to properly utilise the budget available to them for the construction of new buildings and getting better technology and equipment. States such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu utilised less than 5% of the funds available to them. The nationwide average for this was 75% in 2017, which declined to 55% in 2019.

This underutilisation of funds paradoxically co-exists with the non-availability of funds, which, in turn, leads to human resource shortages. Since scheme-specific funds cannot be transferred, these shortages remain unaddressed. As of 2019, West Bengal and Bihar, for instance, utilised less than 60% of their modernisation fund. But these states also had constable and officer level vacancies of 42% and 53%, respectively. If allowed to continue for a long time, these shortages lead to a situation in which the state finds itself unable to adequately plan for, request, monitor, or report on the work for which money is available.

How do these budgetary allocations compare with police forces globally?

Budgetary allocations are based on a number of factors, and one should be wary of making comparisons with other countries with smaller populations.

In 2018-19, the United Kingdom spent £1.13 billion ($1.43 billion) on its police. In light of recent calls to defund the police in America, we now have data that tells us that for the 2019 fiscal year, the New York Police Department alone spent nearly $6 billion.

Here too, nearly all police spending (97%) was for operational costs, such as salaries and benefits. Over the last five decades, capital spending has never accounted for more than 5% of police spending.

No matter what the allocation, it is important to tie spending to outcomes. An efficient and effective police can only be created through a constant evaluative process that surveys the needs of policing and aligns budgets accordingly.

Do police officers and staff have access to mental health resources?

India, the second-most populous nation in the world, has amongst the lowest global police to population ratios at 158 for 100,000 (as of 2019). A direct consequence of this is that the individual is overstretched and overstressed.

Studies, both by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (on the need for eight-hour work shifts) and civil society organisations like Common Cause, find that police personnel work long hours without weekly offs.

In 2019 a report by Common Cause found that on average a personnel works more than 14 hours a day, with three out of four interviewees claiming this was affecting their mental health. There is no institutionalised provision anywhere in India for access to mental health, any initiative would be ad-hoc or short term.

Medical coverage of police personnel itself is patchy—relatively good for central armed police forces, but poor in many states. Central forces are covered under the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS). Mental health treatment however is not covered and there are caps to specialist treatment for major diseases.

What impact has the pandemic had on this scenario?

The Covid-19 moment has brought forward the health risks that personnel face, not only from the virus but from the stress and pressure of working under an unprecedented situation. It may be perhaps more pertinent to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to see how investing in mental health—through improvement in working hours, living conditions, well-being programmes, counselling, creation of communication skills, etc—can improve the performance of the police.

What else can be done immediately to reduce the cases of brutality on the part of the police against citizens?

Brutality and impunity of the police are a reality, and unfortunately, reforms remain in the rhetoric stage. The recent Tamil Nadu custodial torture case has garnered much attention and outrage, and rightly so. Official statistics show that in 2018 there were 70 deaths in police custody. Data show that for 1,727 custodial deaths being recorded in India between 2001 and 2018, only 26 policemen were convicted.

There are a number of things that can be done immediately. First, ensure there is zero-tolerance for every infraction big or small has negative consequences for the perpetrator. States should implement the law commission recommendation that where it is a case of custodial violence and death, the presumption kicks in that it happened unless the perpetrator can prove otherwise; this was done for custodial rape cases.

States could also review the way that recruitment is done and increase the diversity profile of the force from top to bottom. There is a need to radically overhaul induction training and make it “real,” ensuring that pre-existing societal biases are cleansed and belief in lawful procedure is made paramount.