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The crime scene

Print edition : Dec 16, 2011 T+T-

The government should take note of new studies that have thrown up bright ideas on checking the frequency and intensity of crimes.

THERE is nothing sensational in the statistics dished out recently by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Union Home Ministry for the year 2010. The only element of surprise is that the NCRB was able to release its annual Crime in India earlier than it normally does. There used to be a time lag of at least two years, which rendered a study of crime patterns somewhat skewed. And this delay was mostly because of the sloth of State police forces. It is a good sign that States are waking up to their duty to a Central agency, which is primarily responsible for educating policymakers and the lay public on the crime scene in India.

Kudos is due to the NCRB for continually refining its output so that its bulky volume is more readable and comprehensible. The compendium along with its sister publications ( Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India and Prison Statistics, India) can now be accessed online (ncrb.nic.in) with reasonable speed. This is again commendable if one considers how cumbersome it was to get anything out of the NCRB until a few years ago. To an extent, this takes the sting out of the usual reservations over the accuracy of the statistics that go into Crime in India.

To be fair, you cannot blame the NCRB if you get the feeling that the statistics do not reflect the hard reality of crime in the field. If the States that feed the NCRB with the basic data do not set much store on accuracy or honesty, a Central agency can hardly be faulted.

Crime statistics in India have two principal components: cases registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and those under Special and Local Laws (SLL), such as the Arms Act, Explosives Act, Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act and Immoral Traffic Prevention Act. From the point of view of the average citizen, IPC offences, which cover bodily harm and attacks on property, are much more important than those in the SLL category. Nevertheless, there is a link between the two, which makes a simultaneous study of both more meaningful.

The figures for 2010 point to a marginal 1 per cent increase in the aggregate of crime. In terms of crime rate, namely, incidence per 100,000 of population an international yardstick IPC crimes showed a slight rise, while SLL crimes dropped, again marginally. This trend is of some comfort, although there are traditional sceptics who discount crime statistics as unbelievable because of the universal phenomenon of suppression by law enforcement agencies and non-reporting by victims either out of indifference or out of their conviction that the police would anyhow not move sufficiently fast to apprehend the aggressors. It is because of this hard ground reality that, in matters of crime, it is popular perception that counts much more than actual occurrences.

Two burglaries or two rapes in quick succession, particularly when they are highlighted by the media, are enough to spread scare in a city and damn a police force. This is why crime statistics suffer from a universally low rating and are used mainly for discrediting a government or an administration.

The opposition parties revel in citing a spurt in crime in their criticism of the government. It is this tendentious use of crime statistics that leads to the undesirable massaging of figures with a view to creating the impression that crime is under control when actually it is not.

Cases of homicide

I would, therefore, prefer to concentrate on specific crimes that are normally better reported than the others because they are harder to suppress. One such category is the taking of life of individuals for profit or out of enmity arising from family discord. India reports an average of 30,000 to 35,000 homicides every year. The actual number in 2010 was 33,335, which reflected a 3 per cent rise over the previous year.

Uttar Pradesh (4,401) was the single largest contributor, with Bihar (3,362) a close second. During the year, there were nearly 29,000 attempts to murder. The dubious distinction of contributing the highest number again in this category goes to Uttar Pradesh. This should indicate how dangerous the situation is. If this does not make every one of us sit up and ask some questions, it is clear we have lost all our sensitivity to societal trends.

While studying homicides, one must also reckon the large number of unidentified bodies located by the police in various parts of the country. These are unnatural deaths and some of them could have been caused by foul play, especially when such bodies are found after a substantial lapse of time. A majority of homicides are committed on an impulse and as a sequel to a wordy quarrel. This is why one may not expect preventive action to yield visible results.

Nevertheless, effective policing, which generates a feeling that the aggressors will not go scot-free, can help. Greater protection to threatened individuals and visible patrolling of traditionally violence-prone localities (hot spots as some criminologists refer to them) may bring down homicide rates slightly.

Urban violence

I may have to pause here to express my anxiety over the increasing proclivity of individual and groups to violence, especially in urban centres. In my estimate, India is indeed a dangerous country to live in, where urban violence is burgeoning. The metros portray an unstable picture that is difficult to ignore.

Business rivalry and rising promiscuity account for bodily violence that may or may not lead to a loss of lives. They are serious enough to generate a fear that is deleterious to the younger generation, who are exposed day in and day out to facts of gory happenings around them through the visual media.

Parental guidance to TV watching, therefore, assumes a lot of importance here. Indian movies are not different from those produced in Hollywood. They depict violence and sex in such abundance, totally unmindful of the harm they are causing to young minds. There is only symbolic control over this evil by the government at the Centre and those in the States. As long as this remains so, we cannot hope for a drop in crime rates.

Women victims

This brings me naturally to the task of protecting women. Crime in India refers to more than 200,000 offences against women, representing a nearly 5 per cent increase over the previous year. While all physical attacks against women are despicable, the most heinous of them are rapes. India reports an annual average of 20,000. This is a number that should rattle even the most insensitive of citizens.

The horror of it all is that this figure hides the reality of a substantial number of rapes going unreported because of the social stigma that attaches to the victim. Even more condemnable is the poor rate of convictions in courts. Both substandard and dishonest police investigation, and the ease with which prosecution witnesses are bought over by influential accused, account for this abominable situation.

One aspect of rape that is often not highlighted is the fact that in a huge number of cases, the aggressor is one who is already known to the victim. He is a close relative or a trusted friend of the unsuspecting victim's family. How does one cope with this phenomenon? Where a parent is available, it is his or her paramount duty to protect the ward by judiciously denying an opportunity for the predator to execute his design.

Paying importance to this fundamental precaution is often lost sight of even in traditional families, what to speak of the less careful modern families where imposing reasonable and unobtrusive restrictions on interaction between the male and female in a domestic setting is ridiculed.

Incarceration

Fundamental to all debate on crime is the concern whether it is possible to reduce its intensity and frequency. If the response is in the affirmative, what are the human and financial costs involved? There are several contentious theories that have been floating around for centuries, a few of which have been productive. Of particular interest to researchers is the proneness of some offenders to repeat their deviance with nonchalance. Criminologists propagate incarceration as the most logical response to recidivism. The U.S. is one country which has great faith in this methodology, as evidenced by the unabated enlargement of prison space and a stern sentencing guideline, such as Three strikes, you're out.

There are a number of solid studies that have thrown up bright ideas, which are worth pursuing. Recently, I came across a meaningful paper, Controlling Crime: How To Do More With Less by Professors Philip J. Cook of the Duke University and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago that focusses on how to economise available resources so that crime control measures are not spurned by critics who assail governments for their extravagant spending on questionable public safety projects.

Cook and Ludwig specifically refer to the recommendations of a working group of economists and social scientists set up by them on available strategies that promise a substantial reduction in crime at much lower costs than now. The suggestions by the group include enhanced access to licit opportunities (to the at risk' youth) while strengthening their resistance to criminal enticements.

Better parenting and added incentives to good conduct and citizenship are other avenues that offer hope. No doubt, these could appear to be long-term strategies. Sounding more practical and down to earth, the group of distinguished scholars also advocate immediate implementation of a tactic styled target hardening', that is, making objects of criminal victimisation better guarded, as a swifter way of controlling crime.

Cook and Ludwig make a lot of sense, which should be most appealing to all those charged with the task of reducing crime in our neighbourhoods.