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Handcuffed to errands

India’s police force finds itself doing jobs that could be easily done by private firms, writes Arvind Kala.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2007 14:15 IST

The explosions in Samjhauta Express should prompt the government to consider privatising public safety. The train blew up because policemen in Delhi did not check suitcases that entered the train. Private sector guards would do the job much better, if only the task was contracted out.

The United States hires private security agencies to perform scores of jobs ranging from guarding nuclear power stations and the Kennedy Space Center to protecting military bases in Iraq. Private policing is so effective and inexpensive that the US government even hired a security company to guard a key American ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Our 12 lakh-strong police force ends up being mis-deployed. One such unnecessary ‘duty’ is taking summonses from the courts in criminal cases. The summonses do not need to be served by policemen. They can be served by any courier company. A policeman costs the exchequer Rs 1.3 lakh a year, excluding the cost of training him. Yet, the simple solution of transferring this job to a courier company does not strike the Indian State.

Essentially, India’s police force needs to be freed from duties that can be easily outsourced. One such ‘outsourcing’ has worked perfectly in Delhi — the towing away of cars parked illegally. The Delhi Police entrusted this job to private contractors many years ago. This has worked out fine because the contracts are invariably renewed.

Contrast the Indian scenario with a wave of private policing that is sweeping Britain and the US. The societies of both countries realise that since policing costs are becoming unaffordable, they need help from the private sector. So Britain has passed a law that licenses and authorises ‘community support officers’ to wear uniforms, patrol streets and issue on-the-spot fines to erring citizens. The US state of North Carolina has given ‘police powers’ to dozens of security companies whose personnel use patrol cars and carry guns. The Minneapolis Police Department shares a radio frequency with private security companies. Around 4,000 private sector security men licensed as ‘special police’ have arrest powers in Washington DC.

The police in India should stick to its core function: crime prevention, crime investigation, answering emergencies and being visible on street patrols. Indian policemen waste lakhs of man-hours ferrying over 2 lakh undertrials from jails to court houses and back to attend endless court hearings. Ironically, the same police in India are disastrous when it comes to guarding prisoners. A total of 1,182 prisoners escaped from their police escorts in 2000, according to the government’s National Crime Records Bureau. This works out to an astonishing four escapees a day, which suggests that they bribed their police escorts for their freedom.

India has some 18 lakh retired army jawans who are fit and well-trained. Employed by private security agencies, they could ferry undertrials or check passengers of trains like the Samjhauta Express very efficiently. The Indian State doesn’t realise that security is a professional job best left to professionals. Witness the mindless wastage of police manpower.

The transfer of policemen in Delhi from a thana to the traffic department and vice versa is an example. This makes no sense as the average Indian policeman is over-qualified for a traffic job. A traffic policeman’s training should be traffic-specific and he should belong to a separate traffic wing that focuses on two jobs: managing traffic and boosting city revenues by fining errant road-users. Ultimately, traffic management could be totally outsourced to the private sector.

Also, why does the State allow constables to be used as orderlies in the homes of police officers? The constable orderlies number around 30,000 at any point of time catering to at least 10,500 police officers. This simply means 30,000 fewer men to do actual police work. Surely, they need to be doing their real job out there.

First Published: Feb 22, 2007 03:36 IST