Police reforms still largely only on paper

Published : August 09, 2019 19:56 IST

Devika Prasad, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative's coordinator of the Police Reforms Programme.

In 2006, the Supreme Court issued seven directives for police reform in Prakash Singh and others vs Union of India and others.  The sixth directive required each State and Union Territory to constitute Police Complaints Authorities (PCAs) at the State and district levels with immediate effect.  These are external bodies to receive and inquire into people’s complaints of police misconduct on issues ranging from custodial rape/attempt to rape/death, grievous hurt, and corruption to illegal arrest or detention.   

Seventeen States have established the PCAs through State Police Acts, while 10 of them have done so through executive orders. They are meant to function as strong accountability bodies over the police.  The intention behind the PCAs is to ensure that a local mechanism specialised in handling a wide ambit of complaints against the police, including the most serious, is readily available to the public at large.  Changing the policing culture and making it thoroughly professional is a long-term goal of the PCAs.   

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) monitors the functioning and progress of the PCAs, which is seemingly inadequate.  According to the CHRI, States have either created PCAs only on paper or have chosen to ignore the court directive.  States that have operational PCAs are Assam, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tripura and Uttarakhand. Seven Union Territories have operational PCAs.  Only Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Nagaland and Rajasthan have them at both State and district levels.  

The States that have not operationalised the PCAs include West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.  Madhya Pradesh has opted to set them up only at the district level. Twenty-two States selected personnel to the PCAs without having an independent panel selecting them from a shortlist as mandated by the court.

Among the complaints received by the PCAs from January 2016 to June 2018 (according to the replies received from competent authorities under the Right to Information Act by the CHRI), 477 pertained to death, grievous hurt, and rape.  As many as 786 complaints related to extortion, land/house grabbing, and non-registration of FIR, while 1605 complaints alleged other offences. Kerala topped the list with 3,926 complaints, of which 2088 were admitted for inquiry.  Madhya Pradesh received 1,822 complaints, of which 1,718 were admitted for inquiry.   Kerala disposed of 102 cases, while Gujarat disposed of 70.  Other States have not shared data on disposals.  

On August 2, the CHRI held a consultation on PCAs in New Delhi, in which Justice V.K. Mohanan, Chairperson, Kerala State PCA, and Justice P.S. Teji, Chairperson, Delhi PCA, participated. 

Model Police Bill

Frontline spoke to Devika Prasad, CHRI’s coordinator of the Police Reforms Programme, on the issues discussed at the consultation and the emerging challenges. Previously, Devika has worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the U.N. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in Human Rights and Criminal Justice from Queens University, Belfast.

Excerpts from the interview:

Could you tell us about the concept of the PCA, its genesis and its purpose.

The Supreme Court in Prakash Singh and others vs Union of India and others envisioned a system where State-level authorities would look into complaints against officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above and look into only allegations of “serious misconduct” which includes but is not limited to death, grievous hurt, and rape in custody. In many States, “arrest or detention without due process of law” has also been added to the category of serious misconduct. At the district level, authorities would inquire into complaints against police officers of and up to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. In the districts, in addition to the serious misconduct listed above, the authorities would also look into complaints of extortion, land/house grabbing, or any “incident involving serious abuse of authority”.

In October 2006, a month after the Supreme Court’s judgment, a legislative template in the form of a Model Police Bill was produced by the Police Act Drafting Committee (PADC), more popularly known as the Soli Sorabjee Committee. This Committee was created by the Ministry of Home Affairs to draft a new Police Act for India to replace the Police Act of 1861, which is still the central Police Act in force. In its judgment, the court referred to the committee’s draft and advised State governments to frame new Police Acts based on the Draft Model Police Bill. The Draft Model Bill contains a detailed section that establishes police complaints bodies in the form of Police Accountability Commissions at State and district levels.

 The court prescribed minimum standards and a basic framework for external oversight of the police. The Draft Model Police Bill complements the Supreme Court judgment in that it provides the nuts and bolts through which the directions of the Supreme Court can be implemented effectively. It puts in a place a system to manage complaints against the police in its legislative model.

With the increasing abuse of authority by police officials and the growing demand for police accountability, the need for these statutory institutions assumes tremendous importance. They have the potential to check police abuse, recommend punitive steps against errant officers, identify patterns of misconduct and criminality within the police and suggest policy improvements for overall change in police behaviour and performance. Given that these bodies are in their nascent stages, it is important that their performance is monitored and they are provided the necessary assistance to grow into their roles. 

Our study evaluates key aspects of the establishment and working of PCAs–their structure, composition and aspects of actual operations. At the same time, it provides insight into the strengths and omissions of legal frameworks governing PCAs within State Police Acts. As the two main pieces of legislative guidance, both the court’s directive and the Model Police Bill’s provisions are taken as the standard by which to measure legal frameworks and the design of operational authorities.

 What has the CHRI’s research and the consultation on PCAs revealed?

 It has been seen that PCAs haven’t been set up nationwide, at both State and district levels, even after the Supreme Court’s orders in  September 2006. This is the situation 13 years after the judgment.  Where PCAs are operating, they are hampered by lack of investigative staff, resources and the needed training and orientation to maximise their role as independent police oversight bodies. Generally, a PCA comprises a chairperson, who is often a retired judge, and three to five members. The members may include retired police officers, civil servants or persons from civil society. There is a worrying trend of serving police and government officers being included as members of PCAs, thwarting their independence. 

 What has been the PCAs’ experience broadly?  How many States have them and have they been able to achieve their purpose?

 The PCAs are almost always understaffed, have congested office spaces, and are not always assured accessible office spaces of their own.  They are not oriented or equipped to be the proactive bodies they should be. Although the PCAs aren’t authorised to have their very own private investigators, they may hire retired police officials with expertise in investigation—the Kerala State PCA is making moves to hire a non-police investigator. The PCAs in Maharashtra and Tripura are the only two with set timelines to complete their inquiries, which is 90 days.  If they are unable to conclude within this time, they must explain why in writing.  The PCAs have not been able to meet the aim of strengthened police accountability. 

 What are the lessons to be learnt from the PCAs working all these years?

 The relevance of the PCAs is as urgent as ever, but there has to be systematic support to the PCAs with backing of better resources. Most importantly, they have to be independent and proactive police oversight bodies. They need both civil society’s support and strong advocacy with governments to transform them towards making an impact on police accountability. 

Your data is silent on Jammu & Kashmir. Can you tell us whether Jammu &Kashmir opted for the PCA? 

 Jammu & Kashmir (as a State) moved an application before the Supreme Court seeking suspension of the implementation of the directive to set up PCAs. The State government alleged that creating PCAs would give a forum for insurgency “elements” to lodge false complaints against the police. They also said that there were already a sufficient number of police oversight mechanisms in the State and there was no need for another complaints body.

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