Life on the edge: A national cop-out
This past week, one policewoman died and another committed suicide in Mumbai. Across the country, abysmal working conditions and endless work hours are pushing our khaki forces to exhaustion, despair. Rhythma Kaul and Aarefa Johari report.india Updated: Dec 08, 2013 00:32 IST
In reel life, the cop is often the hero. In movies, comic books and music videos, the police are pictured as tough, well-built men and women who fight gangsters, control marauding mobs and always defeat the villain.
The reality, sadly, is very different.
Last week, 36-year-old Shruti Chopdekar, a constable in Mumbai's Railway Protection Force, collapsed on a railway bridge and died of cardiac arrest while on duty.
She had been working 12 to 16-hour shifts for 16 years, with no fixed weekly day off.
She had developed high blood pressure and, apparently, a heart problem.
Across the country, data from the National Crime Records Bureau show that most police personnel who die while still serving on the force die of natural causes.
Not from a bullet or an accident in the line of duty, but from suicides and heart attacks.
Last year, for instance, a total of 1,616 police personnel were killed on duty or in accidents across India.
In contrast, of the 4,554 police deaths in 2012, a whopping 2,724 died from natural causes. Heart attacks were a leading cause; 214 of the remaining cases were suicides.
"Anxiety and depression are common on the force, as is high blood pressure," says a senior Delhi police official.
Walk into any police station and you will hear countless stories to explain why this is so.
At Grant Road's DB Marg police station in Mumbai, for instance, policemen and policewomen work 12-hour days, six days a week, except on 'special occasions' such as festivals, visits by VIPs or terror alerts.
Then, the six days turn to seven or the hours expand indefinitely.
"This 'special duty' happens every week," says a 46-year-old constable at the station.
According to data from the Bureau of Police Research & Development, there are 21.24 lakh sanctioned posts for police personnel across the country but only 15.85 lakh police personnel.
Experts say the combination of poor working conditions and long and stressful work hours triggers physical and psychological distress.
When a person is under stress, the body gets into fight or flight mode, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that raise heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels. If the stress is constant, these hormones wreck the immune, digestive and reproductive systems while also affecting mood and behaviour.
"With crime rates rising and new laws being passed, expectations from the force keep mounting. But there is no corresponding improvement in their salaries or working conditions," says Vijay Raghavan, professor and head of the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Raghavan believes India does not conduct enough 'judicial audits' to ensure that when a new law is passed, there are enough resources to implement it. "Right now, everything is thrust on the police even though they don't have the manpower to handle it all," he says.
The resultant understaffing is perhaps the biggest handicap faced by the police force, a situation further compounded by the manner in which the existing staff is made to work.
A large chunk of the police force, for instance, is used to provide security to VIPs.
"Often the distribution of constables' duties is done mechanically through a roster system, by junior officers who are insensitive to the individual health concerns of their staff," adds lawyer and former IPS officer YP Singh. "Those with vulnerable health are not often spotted and identified."
Collectively, these factors lead to a police force where many personnel are demoralised and under-productive.
"If there's little work satisfaction, frustration creeps in, making people bitter, angry and resentful. No one can completely escape stress, but those who lack positive reinforcement get affected adversely," says Dr Smita Deshpande, head of psychiatry at Delhi's Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
While expanding the police force is the most obvious means of addressing the maladies within the force, some believe there are other ways to improve working conditions.
"In Kerala, successful efforts have been made to introduce eight-hour shifts. All constables have been given mobile phones and police stations have been digitised to help utilise time better," says Jacob Punnoose, former director general of police in Kerala.
Shades of Khaki
'I lost my family to my job'
Amrish Singhal, 50, head constable, Delhi
Singhal has been a policeman for 29 years.
"I was deputed on raids for three consecutive wedding anniversaries — my first three," he says.
Being a policeman was always his dream. "But street-cred comes at a high price," he says. "In the beginning, the wife understands... for years. But how long can a marriage sustain itself with just one partner?"
Eventually, Singhal's wife left, leaving him to juggle work and a baby boy.
Two decades on, the stress and unhealthy lifestyle have left Singhal with diabetes, hypertension and arthritis. He also suffers from sporadic panic attacks. He is now on anti-depressants, among other medication. His only child has turned rebellious and fallen into bad company because of what Singhal calls a lack of a proper father figure.
"I was never there for him," he says. "I was so busy preventing crime that I let my son become everything I wanted to protect him from."
'Often, we get one day off a month'
Priyanka Roy, 28, police sub-inspector, Kolkata
Roy was a picture of health when she joined the police force four years ago. Then, amid 11-hour days, erratic meal times and weeks with no days off, her health began to deteriorate.
Last year, she was hospitalised for seven days with a liver ailment and anxiety issues, and diagnosed with neurological ailments attributable to stress. "When I returned to work, I submitted letters from my doctor advising more regular working hours for a while. My seniors said I might lose my job or face consequences if I made such demands," she says.
Amid the stress of her odd shifts, Roy fell ill again and took 15 days of unpaid leave, against her seniors' orders.
When she returned to work, she was punished with a written warning that has been entered into her service record. Many sub-inspectors suffer the same fate, Roy says.
"We often get just one day off a month. And yet if you seek redress, reprisals follow."
'We need rotational shifts'
P Sandhya, 40, senior police officer, Chennai
Sandhya has been a policewoman for nearly 16 years. Long hours, stress, missed weekly days off and a near-total lack of long leave have slowly eaten into the pride and joy she felt at first being inducted into the force.
Working up to 17 hours a day for relatively poor pay, Sandhya says she is glad she works in a state where there are plenty of good canteens accessible to the police.
Still, irregular meal times and high stress have affected her health.
"During VIP duty and special duty, I cannot leave my spot for a second. This means no bathroom breaks and no water for hours."
This has led to health complications, including kidney stones, exhaustion and severe back pain.
"If I could make one wish," Sandhya says, "it would be for all policemen and policewomen to be granted rotational shifts, working in the field and at desk jobs, for some relief from the relentless pace."
(* Names changed on request)
'I have missed out on a lot'
Boyella Pitchaiah, 58, traffic police sub-inspector, Hyderabad
After 36 years in the force, Pitchaiah is due to retire at the end of the month.
Through his working life, he has supported a family of five on a meagre salary that began at `400 a month when he joined the forced in 1978 and now stands at `50,000. The stress of decades of directing traffic all day in an overcrowded city known for its traffic and heavy pollution has taken its toll.
A medical check last year revealed that Pitchaiah's lung capacity has dropped.
"I can feel the difference in my breathing. I would not blame it on my work though," he says, wearing a surgical mask on that barely shields him from the fumes of the 22,000 vehicles that pass through his chaotic junction during rush hour.
"If I look back, there are many things I missed out on," he admits. While Pitchaiah says he has no complaints, many of his colleagues and seniors admit that the men are stretched to their limits.
"We need more personnel," says Amit Garg, ACP for traffic. "We try to be accommodative, allocating leave whenever possible, but the pressure on our men is constant."
— Prasad Nichenametla
'There is nothing nice about my job'
Chhaya Katakade, 24, traffic police constable, Mumbai
The last time Katakade got time off, it was to have her baby, now nearly two years old. She has since juggled motherhood, housekeeping and a job that often demands 12-hour days and seven-day weeks. She is entitled to 12 leave days a year, but the incessant staff crunch means these are usually forfeited too.
"There is nothing nice about this job," she says. "I spend up to 12 hours on my feet, directing traffic in scorching sun or pouring rain, my voice going hoarse from the pollution."
For all this, Katakade, who has been a policewoman for six years, is paid `15,000/month. She gets `60 a day as compensation if she works on her weekly day off.
Working in alternate shifts that start at 7 am and 3 pm, Katakade says she barely sees her son when she is on the afternoon shift. "Sometimes, I get the sense that he can't recognise me at first."
Amid the chaos of the city's streets, she finds herself worn down, irritable, suffering from mood swings.
Morale is an issue too. "No one has ever stopped by to tell me that she I am doing a good job," Katakade says. "There is nothing to bring a smile to my face through the hot, exhausting work days."
—Anubhuti Matta and Jatin Anand