Policing in the times of Covid-19

Updated on Apr 07, 2020 07:12 PM IST
Train policemen to tackle medical emergencies; utilise RWAs; empower private security guards
Uttar Pradesh Police personnel screen vehicles for identity cards, Noida, April 06, 2020(Sunil Ghosh / Hindustan Times)
Uttar Pradesh Police personnel screen vehicles for identity cards, Noida, April 06, 2020(Sunil Ghosh / Hindustan Times)
ByYashovardhan Azad

Epidemics have ravaged civilisations and changed the course of history. In 1918, over 15 million Indians perished in the Spanish flu outbreak, the last major pandemic that devastated the subcontinent. The flu is reported to have arrived in India through the Bombay port. Seven police sepoys posted at the Bombay docks were the first ones to be admitted to the police hospital with “the Bombay fever”. Now, as India stops in its tracks to break the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) chain, the police force, as one of the essential services, is again at the forefront of the Herculean task of enforcing this unprecedented nationwide lockdown.

Policing during pandemic has neither specific guidelines nor well-defined roles in shaping the response. The forces are geared for imposing isolation, but never on such a vast scale. As nervous citizens were caught off guard by the hastily-announced lockdown, policemen risked their lives on the streets to ensure that the country’s 1.3 billion people stayed safe indoors — advising the violators or using force to vacate roads; drawing lakshman rekhas to space people out in front of shops and bazaars; standing at the naka (barricade) points through day and night to check cars; spreading awareness about social distancing; disciplining some for violating the restrictions; and arresting foolhardy offenders. To be sure, this, at times, resulted in excessive action, but this was more the exception than the norm. The police also traced the travel history of those who did not follow screening protocols and took them to quarantine centres.

With a police-population ratio of only 192 in India (192 policemen per 100,000 people), this is no mean task. The dearth of manpower reduces the effectiveness and efficiency of the police force, and even causes psychological ailments for many. To keep a strict surveillance on its people during the lockdown in Britain, where the police-population ratio is much higher, the forces used high-tech drones.

Despite their best efforts, the hapless constables, who form the frontline of the force, are often shown as ill-informed and depicted in poor light. Despite obsolete equipment, lapses in communication network and compromised police mobility due to the shortage of vehicles and drivers, our police system is still committed to deliver its best under trying circumstances.

To help the citizens during the lockdown, policemen have gone beyond the call of duty. Some have distributed food and milk packets, including senior citizens. Food rations were distributed in police trucks in Punjab. The police went from door-to-door offering help to the elderly in West Bengal. They distributed food packets in women’s shelters and to labourers. Some have even tried innovative means to spread the message regarding precautions and safety measures to contain the coronavirus, wearing spiked red helmets shaped like the virus. Some policemen in the states sang patriotic songs, making an appeal to citizens to stand by the nation in its fight against coronavirus. These endeavours of the police force in this hour of crisis should not go unrecognised.

Considering the staggering population, the police cannot deliver without community help and participation. For instance, after the first day’s efforts to distribute food to the deprived, the Delhi Police got overwhelming support from residents who came forward to offer vegetables and other food items. The special branch of Delhi Police distributed around 6,000 food packets to the needy in various parts of the Capital in collaboration with volunteers and staff of its district units, as per media reports. In the South district, the police, in coordination with a private trust and district civil administration, distributed 500 food packets to the needy at Sanjay Colony Bhatti Mines. From serving meals at police stations to providing medical assistance, the Delhi Police along with NGOs reached out to those in distress due to the lockdown in the slums. Some self-help groups have also come forward to carry the baton. Similarly, a few states are implementing innovative ideas for social distancing with the panchayats and police working together.

The police force, as one of the sentinels of democracy, should be applauded and encouraged for being a crucial interface between the government and the public at this time of national emergency. However, there are three lessons for the future. First, police training schools should include medical emergency and police responses in their syllabus, which would call for a paradigm change in protocols and accoutrements.

Second, with the police force stretched to the maximum, there is an acute need for private security guards to be trained and empowered.

When the lockdown was imposed, police officials were seen walking around the parks with megaphones, sensitising the crowds about Covid-19 — a job that security guards could have done. In fact, a variety of tasks performed by the police today can be done by private guards under supervision.

Last, communities or clusters which organise themselves well through self-discipline, emerge from such crises unscathed and stronger. Some resident welfare associations in Delhi and Gurgaon have already proved this, though it is crucial they follow the law, don’t act arbitrarily, impose draconian restrictions and harass community members.

Yashovardhan Azad is former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner

The views expressed are personal

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