Crime statistics are shocking, but do governments care?

"Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital." The late American professor Aaron Levenstein's memorable quote may be apt for the 'Crime in India2016' report released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recently.

As usual, newspaper headlines screa med "crime capital" and "rape capital" while reporting it. The data, spread over 742 pages, was interpreted, justified and opposed by political leaders, policymakers and policemen to their own convenience. One set argued that a rise in crime graph is due to a robust crime reporting system, while the other pointed to lacunae in policing arising out of political interference or abject failure in tackling law and order.

Overall, 48.31 lakh cognisable crimes, including 29.75 lakh registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), were reported in 2016, recording an increase of 2.6%. The overall crime rate (per lakh population) increased to 379.3 from 374.1 in 2015 and 367.5 in 2014. The number of murders declined while kidnapping and rape cases were on the rise. When it comes to murder, the numbers declined to 30,450 from 32,127 cases in 2015 and 33,981 in 2014. Rape cases saw an increase to 38,947 cases from 34,651 in 2015 and 36,735 in 2014. A total of 88,008 cases of kidnapping/abduction were reported last year, an increase from 82,999 cases in 2015 and 77,237 in 2014.

The nature of crimes reflects the society one lives in. While India hopes to leap towards a new high economically, we still have more than a lakh cases registered by women against their husbands and in-laws for cruelty. There is an increase in dowry deaths. More girls below the age of six years were kidnapped for "marriage" in 2016 than before. Child marriage cases were on the rise. Sexual assault of minors is another area of concern. Last year, 3.4 lakh cases of crimes against women were registered, which included around 32% domestic violence, 25% sexual harassment and 11.5% rape cases. When it comes to crimes against children, there were 1.1 lakh cases, of which almost 80% were of rape.

These numbers themselves are alarming, but activists suggest that they could be just the tip of an iceberg as a large number of cases go unreported or police refuse to file FIRs. They say there is no political will to tackle these issues. Reflecting on this, CPI(M) mouthpiece People's Democracy lamented in an editorial, "victim-shaming encourages silence and acceptance on the part of the victim, which is further compounded because of the lack of social and infrastructural support. Statements by political leaders blaming women for the violence against them with comments about their clothes, their movements and their friends are pillorising and shaming the victim which only encourages crime."

Ensuring punishment to perpetrators is a deterrent to other potential criminals, say law enforcement officials and policymakers. A reading of the NCRB report shows, however, that India faces an uphill task when it comes to police investigation and trial. Our investigators are yet to solve 12.41 lakh cases registered under IPC.

The pendency of cases under Special and Local Laws (SLL) like Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, and SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is pegged at 35.38 lakh. The pendency rate as on December 2016 in murder cases is 41.2% while it is 40.5% in human trafficking, 40.2% in theft cases and 32.7% in dowry cases. An analysis of the NCRB's annual reports since 2005 shows that Indians lost property worth around Rs 85,000 crore to thieves, but police managed to recover only articles worth Rs 14,124.39 crore.

In the courts, there are around 1.25 crore cases pending trial. Of the cases disposed of by the courts, the conviction rate is a dismal 46.8% (5.96 lakh) of 12.74 lakh IPC cases for which trial was completed. When it comes to SLL cases, the conviction rate is better at 73.4%. The conviction rate for murder is 38.5%, rape 25.5% and kidnapping 20.8%.

Enervated police forces

Why this abysmal state of law enforcement? Political and police leadership need to take responsibility and must answer this question. Police forces are heavily under-staffed and personnel always complain of being over-worked. The Data on Police Organisations, prepared by Bureau of Police Research and Development, says vacancies in state police forces run upto 21.8%. The vacancies among constables and head constables alone account for 81% of the total vacancies. India does not have enough men to police the streets. It has just 151 policemen for one lakh population when the standard set by the United Nations is 220 per lakh people.

The vacancies have added to the burden of police as personnel are forced to work without a break, affecting police efficiency, morale and behaviour. A government-sponsored study had earlier said that 75% of police personnel claim they rarely get a weekly off, while Inspectors acknowledge that their subordinates work more than 11 hours a day. How can under-staffed police forces tackle crimes and investigate cases. On top of it, personnel are not trained in investigation techniques. The preparation of chargesheets, which are the foundation for cases in courts, is often shoddy. The lacunae in chargesheets has attracted the ire of courts several times.

What can be done? A recent Niti Aayog-sponsored study says a review of the police governance framework, the legal set-up, the issues ailing the police force - all call for making police reforms one of the priorities for the country. Governments need to recruit and train more police personnel. They need to implement the recommendations of numerous reports on police reforms, which are gathering dust in the cupboards of Home ministries at the Centre and in the states.

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