A police station for the people

Print edition : March 09, 2007

There is no armed sentry outside the Shiprapath police station in Jaipur, which is a revolution in itself.-

A quiet revolution is taking place in Jaipur, which, if emulated by other States, could influence the way policing in India is organised in the future.

FIVE full months after the Supreme Court set a deadline for the implementation of the National Police Commission's (NPC) recommendations, it is still a matter of speculation whether State governments will fall in line. The popular prediction is that they will somehow hedge to get the order diluted to their satisfaction so that they can continue to keep the police under their thumbs for the sole objective of misusing them.

Meanwhile, some pertinent questions are being raised by those who are opposed to drastic police reforms.

At least one of them, surprisingly, is himself a former policeman. He now sits in Parliament. The other day he buttonholed me to ask whether I honestly believed that the projected reforms could bring about a more people-friendly police, a sore need of the present time. He told me that there was no excitement at all among the citizenry about possible autonomy to the police through these reforms because the police continued to be brutal, corrupt and hostile to the common man. He was no doubt speaking a lot of sense. But my response to him was that as long as police constables, against whom a bulk of the criticism was directed, were overworked and treated like cattle by politicians and by their departmental bosses, they would continue to behave exactly the way they are behaving. First, give them a better working place, pay them more than you do now, and allow them to do their duties in accordance with the law without fear of victimisation. If you do all these, in the course of a decade or two, they will outshine the London Bobby with their smart turnout, polite conduct towards the man in the street and strict adherence to the law. This is not a pipe dream. It can be a concrete reality. This is what the Supreme Court is trying to do, and this is what the NPC aimed at while giving its gem of eight reports, way back in 1979-81.

Short-sighted politicians and bureaucrats are now doing their best to prevent this from happening. Our only hope now rests on the Supreme Court presided over by a wonderful man, whose principal virtues are a clear head and unimpeachable integrity.

Even as I am distressed by the dilly-dallying of State governments, there are a few bright spots that give me hope that we are after all not that badly off. My reference is to some outstanding police officers, both at senior and junior levels, who continue to plod on in order to bring greater credibility to the police as a service organisation, and not a mere `force', as it is often referred to. These officers do not belong to any single region, but are to be found all over the country.

When I was in Jaipur recently, I was told of a unique experiment that aimed at drawing the police and community closer together. This was in the form of a model police station at Shiprapath in East Jaipur that has been functioning since mid-2005. Director-General of Police A.S. Gill, a dynamic officer with many firsts to his credit, and Inspector-General of Police Om Prakash Galhotra, an enthusiastic policeman with a lot of bright ideas, have put their heads together to conceive this model that has hitherto been a dream of many of us who want the police to get rid of their colonial hangover. Gill and Galhotra gave me no option but to visit the place, despite my entreaties to them to let me do so on a subsequent visit. I had to take a chance for there was a distinct possibility of my missing the flight back to Delhi because of the detour involved. In retrospect, I am happy I took the risk because I was bowled over by what I saw. It is a quiet revolution that is taking place in Jaipur, and if emulated by other States, it could influence the way policing in India is organised in the future.

I could not believe my eyes when I was led into a sleek modern building that hardly matched the common image of a police station: a dingy, unventilated, decrepit and unhygienic structure where we would like to avoid stepping in even for a moment, except in a grave emergency. (Of course, with the exception of some places in the country, such as Chennai, where a few new, tidy and bright stations have come up in the recent past.) Yes, at Shiprapath there was a huge signboard that confirmed that the building did in fact house the police of the locality. The usual armed sentry we are used to just outside a police station, who puts off the casual visitor, was missing. This was obviously with a view to lending a friendly ambience to the place. This is a revolution in itself. I do not, however, know how many will agree with the idea of dispensing with the sentry because police stations without an armed guard at the entrance could become ready fodder for the terrorist.

At the reception desk there is the disarming smile of the duty officer who is assigned to receive complaints. He has a computer at his desk that coughs up information on the current status of pending complaints, passport verification papers and a host of other services for which we normally approach the police. Interestingly, stationery is available at this desk for complainants to write out their grievances.

There is a well-manicured lawn at the centre of the police station's premises, one of the many features that make this model station a unique experiment in people-friendly community policing.-

There is also some furniture for visitors to sit on as they wait to be attended to. Quite a contrast to the majority of police stations in the country where you have to pay for the paper that is required to pen your complaint or record your statement during police investigation. Also, you will have to keep standing until your turn comes to be heard by the Station House Officer (SHO), as the government provides only a modicum of what passes for furniture for visitors.

At the Shiprapath Police Station, immediately after the reception there is a mahila desk where a policewoman receives complaints on atrocities against women. This is again an innovation that should be received well in a country where ill treatment of women is shamefully rampant even in urban centres.

Police stations are usually so short of space that they have hardly any place to store property seized during investigation. At Shiprapath, there are three rooms that serve as the malkhana, where such property is neatly arranged, and this is so well documented that retrieval is a matter of minutes. There is also a well-manicured lawn at the centre of the premises that is pleasant to the eye. Whoever said that policemen do not care for aesthetics? Mind you, in all this the local community has had more than a hand.

I was also struck by the fact that each of the 20-odd policemen attached to the station had an assigned desk. The impact that such a thoughtful arrangement could have on the self-esteem of every constable can hardly be measured.

To buttress all this, efforts are made to train policemen in soft skills so as to alter the existing mundane attitudes to work.

The Shiprapath Police Station serves a population of 250,000. Close interaction with the community is of the essence of the experiment. Apart from financing the whole project, the local people have formed Community Liaison Groups (CLGs). With a strength of about 170, these groups operate at the beat and sub-beat levels. Community Police Officers are drawn from these groups, and they take all possible physical measures such as putting up security gates that have successfully brought down offences like burglaries. Also, a lot of information relevant to crime prevention is frequently exchanged between CLGs and the police. Undoubtedly, this is a meaningful partnership to combat crime because police resources hardly match the challenges of the growing ingenuity of criminal gangs. In the ultimate analysis, Shiprapath is one sure means of promoting trust between two entities, namely, the producer of a public safety mechanism and its ultimate consumer. At present, the two have a lot of reservations that dissipate the energy required to counter crime.

I believe what has been tried in Shiprapath is unique. It should warm the hearts all those around the globe, including my friends Professors David Bayley (of State University of New York at Albany) and Jack Greene (Dean, School of Criminal Justice, North-eastern University, Boston), who are strong advocates of community policing of the kind reflected by the Jaipur experiment. Rightly, Shiprapath has been adjudged the best police station in India by Altus, a global alliance that works for enhancing public safety. The assessment is based on the impressions recorded by the public who have been to the police station during a "Visitors' Week" organised by Altus all over the world. In all, 450 police stations in 23 countries took part in this exercise. Shiprapath now stands the chance of being voted among the top police stations in the world, if not the best in the world.

If CLGs are used to prevent crime in Shiprapath, elsewhere in Rajasthan they are employed in the task of reducing police workload. This is achieved through counselling of complainants in minor disputes whereby the contending parties resolve their differences with the help of CLG members. This experiment has been successful in Kota where CLG members are trained by the police in the art of counselling. Invariably, a medium-crime village is chosen for the purpose, and counselling begins only after the rival parties have been spoken to and are agreeable to it. The process takes place away from the police station setting, and beat policemen stand by for assistance. The Rajasthan Police reports a definite reduction in the registration of crime in villages where counselling takes place. While police resources are usefully utilised for more important investigations relating to heinous crimes, citizens involved in petty disputes are saved from the harassment resulting from long-drawn-out court proceedings. I would strongly recommend to the police in other parts of the country to make good use of enlightened citizens, especially in the rural areas, for resolving trivial quarrels, which would normally land in the laps of policemen who are already harried by an impossible daily routine. It is the duty, however, of senior police officers to ensure that in the name of counselling, there should not be suppression of major crimes and that rivals in a dispute that can be handled by the registration of a regular case are not coerced into an `out-of-police' settlement much against their wishes.

I am convinced that enlightened police leadership, like the one in Rajasthan, can improve the existing poor police image in the country. I am quite conscious that many detractors of the police would dismiss what is happening in that State as mere exhibitionism that can hardly bring about and sustain key reforms in police mechanics. I would commend to policemen to ignore such scepticism and usher in many innovations in the field that would benefit at least some citizens and parts of the Constabulary. We must remember that it is incremental changes at the workplace that lead to major improvements that will be spoken about for decades.

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