The National Crime Records Bureau released its annual ‘Crime in India’ report for 2017, a year behind schedule. The report has been criticised for not reporting data on lynching. By and large, however, the report has been accepted at face value and data analysis relying on its statistics presented as the gospel truth. That is far from being the case.
It is highly misleading to read the statistics of the NCRB report as the actual state of crime in India for several reasons. The NCRB’s reliance on crime reported to police stations underscores a primary limitation, simply because crime reporting cannot be taken as an indicator of actual incidence of crime. Societal and institutional pressures, inadequate protection, and lack of assistance to victims are some factors that often work to deter crime reporting. Often, unofficial surveys aimed at deducing the true state of crime incidence are conducted in tandem with such reports in order to present a holistic picture. Unfortunately, no such exercise has been conducted by the NCRB.
The report is also plagued by other issues in data collection. To avoid the problem of double counting, it follows a ‘principal offence rule’ which implies that only the most serious of offences out of a single FIR/charge-sheet is taken into consideration for the purpose of reporting. The same is done even when the offences are substantive and not merely incidental to the principal offence. This essentially implies that where the charge against a person is for rape and murder, NCRB will only count the offence of murder for the purpose of the report and not rape! NCRB acknowledges that the same leads to a problem of under-reporting but does nothing to cure the defect.
It should also be noted that, paradoxically, the ‘principal offence rule’ also leads to over-reporting. Our procedural laws give enough discretion to the police officer to be able to determine the nature of offence as being cognizable or non-cognizable at the time of registration of the FIR. For whatever motives, the police often add serious offences to the FIR to be able to take cognizance even in cases of petty offences which would otherwise be non-cognizable. Ethical considerations aside, from the perspective of data collection, the same leads to over-reporting of serious offences and under-reporting of petty offences. For obvious reasons, this issue has not been acknowledged by the NCRB even cursorily.
Additionally, the method of crime rate calculation by the NCRB is suspect for multiple reasons. Professedly, the formula for such calculation (crime rate = number of crimes/population) takes into account different base year censuses for different groups. The figure for base population for the crime rate calculations for total population and women has been calculated on the basis of the 2001 census whereas for the figure for SC/STs, senior citizens and metro cities, it is based on the 2011 census. This differential treatment for different groups prevents us from making any accurate inter-group comparisons of crime rates.
Another issue with the calculation of crime rate remains that certain classes/categories of persons are more or less criminally active than others and similarly, some classes/categories of victims can be either at a lesser or higher probability of victimization. The measure of taking per lakh population for calculating the crime rate is bound to be inaccurate insofar as it does not account for such differentiation.
A third issue with the calculation of the crime rate is that it does not take into account the geographical distribution of both per lakh population as well as the incidence of crime. India is a vast geographical entity with an uneven distribution of population.
To exemplify, the states of Bihar and West Bengal have much higher population densities than Mizoram and Sikkim. Any calculation of national crime rates drawn on the basis of per lakh population alone is bound to give a skewed picture of the actual state of affairs even as it might lead to an inattentive researcher or policy analyst unaware of uneven distributions into drawing inaccurate and adverse conclusions.
Finally, there are major deficiencies in the scheme of classification of offences by the NCRB. The report lacks a principled approach required for such classification. Consequently, offences that have been reclassified are either highly misleading misnomers or plain classification of those acts as crimes which are yet to be criminalized. It is futile to repackage old offences under new headings without any substantive change in either their scope or definitions.
To illustrate, the classification of the non-existent offence of ‘bullying of women/children’ under section 354D of IPC which pertains to stalking (cyber or otherwise) is extremely inaccurate. Similarly, offences under section 505 IPC for making statements conducive to public mischief and enmity, hatred or ill-will have been misclassified under ‘fake news on social media.’ The scope of section 505 is certainly much broader than the scope of ‘fake news’ which, incidentally, is not an offence. Additionally, the figures for extortion under Section 384 IPC have been simultaneously classified as ‘blackmailing’ as well, even though the latter is not defined as an offence under IPC.
Any research aimed at statistical analysis and its presentation is only as strong as its research methods. If the method is flawed, the results are bound to be flawed as well. Given the reliance placed on the NCRB report by academics, researchers, legal practitioners, policymakers and legislators, it is important that the NCRB remedies the abovementioned defects in addition to identifying other limitations with their methods. In the meantime, it’s probably best to take the report with a pinch of salt rather than placing complete reliance upon it.
(Bajpai is Chairperson, Centre for Criminology and Victimology at NLU, Delhi; Kaushik is Research Associate, at NLUD)