During the past week, reports emanating from Lucknow
indicated that the Uttar Pradesh government was actively contemplating the setting set up of police commissionerates for the two large cities of Lucknow and Noida. This got confirmed with the announcement by the UP Chief Minister post a Cabinet meeting on 13 January 2020
that his government had approved the formation of police commissionerates in the two cities. Today, besides these two fresh entrants and the only ones in UP, there are 71 cities across 15 states in the country that have adopted this administrative arrangement.
This system essentially splits a district in two parts from the point of view of policing. The city proper that forms the large urbanised settlement becomes a geographical area where the police responsibilities of District Superintendent of Police get transferred to the Commissioner of Police. Along with this, the powers of the District Magistrate (DM), the Sub-divisional Magistrates and the Executive Magistrates in the area of crime and law and order also get transferred to the Police Commissioner. For the rest of the District, however, both the District Magistrate, his subordinate magistrates and the District Superintendent of Police retain their police powers.
It is common knowledge that earlier attempts to introduce this change were also essayed; but stiff opposition from the IAS lobby prevented the political leadership from taking the plunge. The common argument advanced by the IAS lobby has been that the police in UP is already very powerful, evidenced by the brazen manner in which they have conducted encounters. The police do not inspire public confidence and people generally bring their grievances to the magistrates. The system has worked with reasonable satisfaction in states where literacy rates are high and there is a vibrant civil society with a high degree of activism and participation by non-governmental organisations. These act as checks on the raw power of the police force. Unfortunately, these are rare in Uttar Pradesh, a state with low literacy, poor public awareness and high poverty.
The IPS lobby, on the other hand, cite the muddled system currently operating where permissions must be obtained from the magistrates on many operational issues that adversely impact efficiency. Besides, responsibilities in the current system get divided between two arms of the district governance system. In difficult law and order situations, if things go awry, a blame game emanates in which actual culpability of the governance machinery is difficult to apportion. There have been cases where the dithering by magistrates have led to law and order situations getting out of hand with serious consequences flowing on to the citizenry.
These arguments of the two services must largely be attributed to the normal human character of people bestowed with limited power to have more of it and people enjoying consummate power refusing to give it up. The IAS inherited these powers from the colonial system that was continued for several decades after independence. Hence, they felt that it was their right to continue to enjoy them. The IPS considered this as a burdensome yoke unnecessarily put around their necks and were fighting to rid themselves of ‘bondage’ and seek freedom. None of this appears to be emanating from a considered evaluation of the governance architecture that is needed at the local level.
The necessity of this reform needs to be seen primarily from the prism of the forces of urbanisation and the resultant changes that must be operationalised to answer urban challenges. Additionally, it ought to be seen in the light of the total administrative burden that the district system is saddled with and the way it ought to be distributed so that the total task is performed with the greatest efficacy. Finally, and not of least significance, is how this arrangement maximises accountability in the prevailing socio-economic context of Uttar Pradesh in which it operates.
Firstly, urbanisation gives rise to a differentiated strain of crime and law and order. Criminologists are agreed that there are both quantitative and qualitative differences in the incidence of urban crime. These are catalysed by the cover of a large and dense population, greater anonymity, social disorganisation, concentration of wealth and larger degrees of consumerism and materialism. A much larger variety of activities encourage new strands of criminal behaviour, modus operandi and the growth of organised crime. The visibility provided to cities and the larger human and material harm that can be caused have concentrated terrorist activities, drug trafficking, human trafficking and cybercrimes in cities. In the light of these factors, the usual kind of rural policing ceases to apply and a much more professional, numerically strengthened and highly skilled police force is demanded. Cities also provide the ideal place for protests, demonstrations and rioting that are likely to impact civic life and economy. These, therefore, need to be tackled with speed and professionalism in the art and science of crowd management. This requires domain expertise.
Secondly, just as urbanisation creates a demand for specialised police governance, it leads to a steep rise in the need for specialised municipal architecture. The planning, governance and delivery of many municipal services to a large population necessitates the setting up of a municipal corporation for larger cities headed by a municipal commissioner who is generally drawn from the IAS. Both these city organisations curtail the role that a DM performs in the city. In most large cities, this is evidenced by the fact that the municipal commissioner is senior to the district magistrate. The DM still carries a huge workload on account of the enormous developmental thrust that governments have attempted through a vast array of schemes that must be reached to the remotest corners of the district, a task that requires undiluted attention. In the cited background, the decision to set up police commissionerates appears logical.
However, the mere provision of autonomy and greater powers to the police through a police commissionerate is not likely to act as a magic wand that will deliver safer and better-policed cities. It is axiomatic for the delivery of good governance to counter-balance autonomy with transparency and accountability. In the western democratic world, the commissionerate operates under the directly elected Mayor and the City Council with a high degree of openness and public sharing of police actions and performance. Unfortunately, India, while borrowing parts of that architecture, has refused to walk the entire path of good governance. It does not require great acumen to conclude that without the tools of accountability, autonomy to public institutions is most likely to generate high levels of malfeasance, abuse of power and the miscarriage of justice. This is truer in the instance of the police, the strong arm of the government.
Since the colonial times, the Police have not had the image of a pro-poor and pro-people institution. In 1859, the British
had noted that the Indian Police was ‘all but useless for prevention, sadly inefficient in the detection of crime and unscrupulous in the exercise of authority with a generalised reputation for corruption and repression’. Despite this, the British did nothing to modernise and reform the situation. Neither has much happened in independent India, despite piles of reform recommendations made over decades.
It is quite clear that while the reform brought about by the current UP government answers the requirements of the times, the absence of clear norms of transparency and accountability imposed on an autonomous police machinery may leave the Police as the handmaidens of the ruling political dispensation on the one hand and a repressive governmental machinery on the other. Past UP experience makes that a potent possibility.
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