A case study on crime

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST


THE law-abiding citizen in a democratic polity expects the executive to demonstrate a strong will to maintain law and order so that the streets are safe for him or her to walk any time of the day or night unhindered by a miscreant. In essence, this refle cts a reasonable desire to attend to one's lawful avocation without being nagged by the fear of crime. From here, we are inclined to proceed to the fundamental question: how does the executive reduce the fear of crime in the minds of the citizenry? A sim ple response is: be transparent about the extent of crime and the effort to tackle crime.

It has been the experience of governments the world over that suppressing data about crime is no longer profitable and is actually fraught with undesirable consequences to all players concerned - the executive, the police and society. It is such new and refreshing enlightenment that induces law enforcement agencies to go public with crime figures annually so that these are critically scrutinised and a public debate is generated with a view to initiating corrective measures wherever they are called for. To policemen themselves, such an exercise could be an eye-opener.

Crime in India 1998 (price Rs. 675), the official publication of the Ministry of Home Affairs, presents crime statistics for the whole of India. Brought out annually by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), New Delhi, it facilitates a meaningf ul study by specialists as well as discerning members of the community. Imaginatively compiled, it provides the necessary focus and framework for research.

A total of 6.1 million cognizable cases (that is, cases in which the police can arrest a suspected offender without obtaining a warrant) under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Special and Local Laws (SLL) - such as the Arms Act, the Narcotic and Psych otropic Substances Act, the Gambling Act and the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act - were registered by the police in India during 1998. This represented a 3 per cent decrease over the previous year, owing mainly to a lower registration of SLL cases. IPC offences, however, increased by nearly 4 per cent.

In most parts of the world, crime is studied in terms of the crime rate, which denotes diffusion of crime over blocks of population rather than over geographical areas. The crime rate for India stood at 637 during 1998. (This is very low compared to many Western nations, including the United States, the size of whose populations pale in comparison to India's billion). The year recorded a slight rise in IPC crime rate and a substantial 8 per cent drop in respect of SLL crimes. One interpretation o f this could be the preoccupation of the police with graver crimes and the community's own disinclination to report non-IPC offences.

While analysing crime, the priority logically goes to the violent variety, which includes murder, rape, robbery and dacoity. One in nearly seven IPC cases is accompanied by violence. The continually rising graph makes us queasy. The three decades between 1961 and 1991 saw a 342 per cent increase, although 1998 itself witnessed only a 3 per cent spurt.

Homicide figures have shown a remarkable constancy - between 37,000 and 38,000 a year for the past five years. Compared to the U.S., India's homicide rates are not alarming. What should however cause concern is the escalation in basic numbers during the past few decades.

Crime in India reveals a 35 per cent rise in the number of murders during 1988-98. Six States (these include Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal) alone contributed two-thirds of the cases reported during 1998. Propert y disputes formed the single largest factor behind the crimes. This is one indicator that not all homicides are impulsive and unpremeditated and are therefore preventable. The police need to act in tandem with the revenue authorities here.

A 65 per cent rise in the number of incidents of rape during the decade that ended in 1998 should jolt many of us. This phenomenon is compounded by the widely held belief that a large number of rape cases go unreported because of the social stigma attach ed to a rape victim. (This is something for regional non-governmental organisations to ponder over.) An average of about 15,000 cases are registered in India each year.

Kidnapping and abduction accounted for more than 23,000 cases in 1998. This represented an almost 50 per cent increase during the decade. Uttar Pradesh alone reported about one-fifth of the cases. What is significant is the growing numbers of women and g irl victims.

A 9 per cent rise in robberies during the decade also reflects a worsening situation. This cannot be explained away by merely referring to the little more than 15 per cent growth in population. The nexus between population and crime is only one among sev eral factors that explain crime bulges.

AN important section of the book addresses the problem of crime against women, a phenomenon that needs a clinical study and an emotion-free analysis and response. Traditionally easy targets of crime, women are becoming increasingly vulnerable because of the growing numbers of women in educational institutions and workplaces. Larger numbers do not necessarily provide greater protection, and some recent events suggest that mere segregation of the sexes does not naturally lend safety to women. (As I write this, comes the tale of atrocities on an inmate of a woman's home in Varanasi right under the nose of a woman superintendent and possibly with her connivance.)

The IPC recognises seven broad categories of offences against women. In addition, there are 17 SLLs that make some reference or the other to this. In 1998, 1.31 million cases in which women were victims were reported in all. This represented an 8 per cen t rise over the previous year's figure. The increase was noticeable under the heads of dowry death (15 per cent), torture (13 per cent) and sexual harassment (eve-teasing) (40 per cent).

'Importation of girls' registered an 87 per cent spurt. Being smaller in terms of basic numbers, compared to other forms of atrocities against women, it has probably not received the attention it deserves. As a form of organised crime, it is much more pe rnicious than what it is reckoned to be. International attention is getting increasingly intense - in the form of a prospective protocol on trafficking in women - and the Indian authorities will necessarily have to devote more attention to this. Also, th is is an inter-State crime that calls for coordination between agencies.

The disposal by the police of offences against women was generally satisfactory. Charge-sheets had been filed in more than 60 per cent of the rape cases and dowry death cases during 1997-98. The corresponding figure in the case of molestation was nearly 90 per cent.

What should cause alarm is the number of cases pending in courts. At the end of 1998, more than 48,000 rape trials were pending. (Possibly more dismaying is the fact that less than 5 per cent of the cases disposed of by courts ended in conviction during 1997-98.) This is an index of the complexity of the situation. It points to the enormous strain on the criminal justice system. No single player is to blame. A national debate on this grave situation is well merited.

It is easy to be cynical and find fault with the system; what is difficult is to come out with radical and workable solutions. Creation of more courts and innovative procedures such as 'plea bargaining', so that a regular trial is waived before sentencin g, are some of the possible means to bring about speedy judicial disposal. Special incentives to police investigators for filing charge-sheets quickly and penalties to those officers found sluggish are suggestions that police supervisors, who are foxed b y a piling up of cases, may find useful.

What is the trend in respect of property crimes (theft, burglary, and so on)? We are persuaded to believe that 1998 recorded just a 3 per cent rise. The gut feeling is that there is appreciable under-reporting, coupled with gross non-registration. This i s an area that calls for closer monitoring by senior police officers. There is possibly also a need for a victimisation survey of the kind that has been so well systematised in the United States, which could throw up patterns not otherwise known to us.

Crime in India has sheafs of meaningful statistics, including those on the strength of police forces and the numbers of police personnel killed in action. Attractively illustrated by means of charts and graphs, the publication should be the deligh t of the serious researcher. NCRB Director Sharda Prasad and his staff deserve kudos for placing a vital national problem in its right perspective.

Dr. R. K. Raghavan is currently Director, Central Bureau of Investigation, New Delhi. The views expressed by him here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of India. His e-mail address is dcbi@ndf.vsnl.net.in

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