Last month, an online news portal released an investigative report on the police repression of Adivasis in Jharkhand. According to it, between late 2019 and 2022, 33 people were allegedly subjected to police atrocities that ranged from torture, sexual abuse and beatings to custodial deaths. More than 20 of these suspects hailed from tribal communities.
Officials in charge have either ordered or promised probes, but these seem to have reprieved the perpetrators. Additionally, the report recorded a perception of police postings having been turned into politically orchestrated auctions.
The Jharkhand incident can be seen alongside a string of similar instances where the police resorted to unchecked, extra-legal measures - alleged fake encounters of criminals, custodial deaths, organised delays in the judicial process, and violence against poor, vulnerable groups to enforce the Covid lockdown.
Last year, India celebrated the 30th anniversary of its landmark economic liberalisation reforms. But crucial as they were, these measures have already run their course. To sustain the process initiated by the architects of the 1991 reforms, we need to bring in structural improvements in the delivery of public goods.
An important area for this is judicial and law enforcement services. The current Chief Economic Advisor V Anantha Nageswaran says that issues of this kind have asymmetric payoffs. Although tackling them may not explicitly add a lot, leaving them out will pose a greater downside risk to projected growth.
Law and liberty are pillars of a nation’s democracy as well as its economic growth. Economic freedom works best when the underlying rules of the game ensure the protection of contracts, public accountability and procedural robustness. In contrast, an internally hollow law enforcement apparatus implies the erosion of basic rights, endlessly ongoing trials and feeble criminal convictions. Instead of being a public good, the police system dwells in the dark underbelly of the state and turns on the very citizenry it is responsible to protect.
To unpack this, we must first take stock. The glaring problems with the present state of policing are understaffing and the lack of infrastructure. In what Shruti Rajagopalan and Alex Tabarrok term 'India's flailing state', the number of police per capita is merely 135 per 1,00,000, one of the lowest in the world. A considerable portion of this is assigned as security detail to VIPs across states. Unsurprisingly, external political interference abounds in police functioning.
This paucity has perverse outcomes: deterrence signals and punitive measures become extreme, public discourse becomes illiberal, and these have secondary effects in the form of extrajudicial killings and long-drawn trials. There is another side to this overburdening. In addition to persisting vacancies in recruitment, an expansive set of responsibilities is accorded to personnel, from crime prevention and maintenance of law and order to traffic management and disaster relief.
Furthermore, the centralisation of power entails a consistently increasing regulatory burden on departments that lack the capacity to match it. On top of this is the erratic enforcement of many petty civil violations as criminal charges.
Over the years, several expert panels like the Second Administrative Reforms Commission have made recommendations to address areas of weakness in policing. Ostensibly, these reforms have been impeded due to the thoroughly politicised nature of policing. Sitting legislators, more so those with pending charges against them, hardly have the will to enable institutional change. Instead, their interests capture and motivate the police machinery to oblige proponents and discipline opponents.
The reasonable policy response to the problems described above is to decentralise the operation of the police force. Yet, experience shows that there is plenty of scope for this trend to go awry as well. In an article re-evaluating community policing, Pete Boettke, Jayme Lemke and Liya Palagashvili deal with this issue in great detail.
According to them, "policing takes place within a system of nested games that has increasingly prioritised federal initiatives over community safety". For this reason, even in a setup that is purportedly decentralised, the logic of action can be regulated from the top. Moreover, there may already exist actual practices that approximate this kind of 'decentralisation', but because they are not legitimated by the power elite, they often get dismissed as patron-clientelism.
In reality, they represent instances of a publicly realised solution being driven underground. In yet another way, 'participatory' policies may descend into a contest among various interest groups with allied or conflicting goals.
Boettke et al. place this careful caveat before us, but the ideal for them is still a federal, polycentric mode of organisation. This implies a system where decision-making is distributed across multiple, autonomous centres. Community policing ought to be the answer to questions of public safety, but only if the public has control over this service in a real sense.
In other words, to address a collective-action problem, the incentives to enforce solutions must be compatible with the larger institutional incentives. In the US, a reckoning is due for the police with respect to its intense hierarchisation and militarisation. A similar reckoning has been long overdue in India, too.
For our police system to break free from the triad of past modes of organisation, political interference and public apathy, the current leadership must highly regard the value of institutional freedom while pushing for necessary change.
(The author is a Freedom Fellow with the South Asia Students for Liberty. He would like to thank Akash Kumar, Md Tasnimul Hassan, HM Tuihedur Rahman and Mukund Sharma for their comments and suggestions)