Thursday, 6 November 2014

More autonomy, not less accountability

The task of injecting more professionalism into the Maharashtra police force is an enormous challenge. The problem may not be one of finding the resources, but primarily one of changing attitudes at the top

There is undeniable euphoria in Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country over the political arrival of Devendra Fadnavis. Having a bubbly fortysomething on the country’s political scene may not exactly be a novelty, but what is striking is that Mr. Fadnavis comes with no baggage that weighs down some others his age already in the arena and who have professed to make a difference. They either allowed themselves to be sucked into the quagmire that is Indian public life, or had not been permitted to perform — even though they possessed the right pedigree — for reasons other than merit, by individuals or groups who felt threatened.
The young and the old alike are both ecstatic about the young leader from Nagpur and have been bowled over by the confidence he exudes and the promise he holds out in transforming the polity in the whole of India, especially in one of its more important States, Maharashtra. Mr. Fadnavis must succeed if we want to bring about a sea change in the quality of our public administration. In our view, having him as an example is something that will definitely rub off on others who are itching to serve the country selflessly.
Politicisation of force
Mr. Fadnavis has the potential to alter the destiny of Maharashtra, provided he works to a plan. He should remain focussed on governance and not allow his energies to be dissipated in futile, controversial public discourses that are easy meat for the Opposition and the media. These are days of high expectations and no consumer of public service is willing to wait to be served. The new Maharashtra Chief Minister no doubt has the supreme advantage of age and a squeaky clean image. This can however dissolve in no time if he does not organise his priorities in an intelligent way or if he unwittingly gives elbow room to the sharks around him.
One of his first moves has been delightfully heartwarming — choosing to keep the Home portfolio to himself. His predecessors had bartered it away for dubious, external political support that came with a tag. The recent history of the State is pockmarked by many unfortunate episodes, which had been the result of politicisation of the police force. The communal riots of 1992-93, the Bombay blasts of 1993, 26/11 and other terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the rest of the State … each stands out for failure or passivity of a police force that was once noted for its commendable professionalism and high standards of integrity.
In dissecting what is wrong with the Maharashtra/Mumbai police, Mr. Fadnavis would greatly benefit from a heart-to-heart chat with a group of retired police officers known for their integrity and track record in objective policing. There are indeed several of them in Mumbai available for an intelligent and pointed debate that we propose as the very first exercise that the Chief Minister should undertake. Many former officers are appalled by the lows to which the police have reached due to widespread corruption and political manipulation that the force has been subjected to. While this may not be very different from what it is in many other police forces in the country, in the case of Mumbai, more than the rest of Maharashtra, the fall has been grievously steep, leading to unforgivable despondence all around.
Need for merit

We must acknowledge that it is not the venal and unscrupulous politician alone who has to be blamed for this sorry situation. A substantial number of police leaders themselves have been more than willing accomplices in recent years.
Two developments have specifically hurt the Mumbai police the most. The self-aggrandisement of the Home Department at the cost of professional police leaders has been colossal. The authority to post even inspectors to various police stations has been usurped by the mandarins in Sachivalaya (State Secretariat), thereby emasculating the Commissioner of Police and destroying the chain of command in a rigid hierarchy that the police is. Worse still is the sale of prized field jobs to the highest bidders. There are incredible tales of venality which would make even the most brazen politician squirm in his seat. Things haven’t changed despite there being many sane and credible voices. Mr. Fadnavis has to restore the primacy of police leadership if it has to deliver. This applies especially to the Mumbai Police Commissioner who should be appointed on merit. In the recent past, some of the appointments to the vital job have resulted in disastrous consequences. The Commissioner’s appointment is fortunately not seniority-driven unlike the DGP’s. So, the Chief Minister has some flexibility in getting to choose the right candidate, even if an officer so anointed is relatively junior to others staking claim to the job solely on the basis of seniority.
A carefully chosen commissioner of police needs enough autonomy to either perform or perish. Constricting his moves by dictating to him on whether a procession should be permitted or banned in Mumbai city cannot be a political decision as is the case now. Remember how a Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) procession was banned by the Commissioner in August 21, 2012? Yet, the party went ahead in organising the rally, and no action was taken against its organisers. Obviously the decision to ban it was at the instance of the political executive over which the Commissioner had no say.
Political interference does not stop with postings. It envelops the recruitment of the constabulary as well. There have been numerous scandals all over the country that have led to dilution of the quality of intake. Many men and women who find a place in the final list are those who have been sponsored either by the Chief Minister or the Home Minister, and had even ‘paid to be favoured.’ This evil is endemic to both the Maharashtra and Mumbai Police, bringing disrepute to the whole process of recruitment.
Restoring credibility

The Central government has been rightly highlighting the need to convert the country into an investor-friendly nation by ensuring a stable public order situation. This cannot happen if India’s financial capital, Mumbai, remains a poorly policed city. A huge investment in technology and processes is called for. Mindless austerity here can cause harm to police standards. Fortunately, there are blueprints available to move things forward. These have remained essentially on paper. There is tremendous talent available within the department to exploit state-of-the-art technology which would sharpen police service to aid victims of crime. What is needed to improve the police image in the city is for swifter professional response to calls for help from citizens in distress and the efficient solving of crime and restoration of stolen property to lawful owners. The Mumbai police have done some creditable work to educate the common man on how to protect himself from crime. There is a case for expanding instruction to the community online as well as through group meetings for citizens. If the new government sends out the message that it will not be statistical in assessing police performance, but would rather go by periodic surveys of community opinion, we can hope to see a free registration of crime, something that would enhance public faith in the police. A crime survey by a non-police agency of the kind that exists in the United States and the United Kingdom will greatly enhance the credibility of the Mumbai police.
Housing

Police morale is a very sensitive aspect of police administration. If neglected, it can lead to disastrous consequences, including deliberate non-cooperation by the police at the grass-roots level during a crisis. One crucial area is the provision of more housing for the constabulary. While it is true that hundred per cent satisfaction of the target of required housing units is not possible because of the continual growth of the force, a substantial number of additional tenements each year will help. It may be shocking for outsiders to know that some policemen in the city live cheek by jowl in slums with persons who have a criminal record. If Mr. Fadnavis has to endear himself to the police community, he has to somehow find the money to expand housing for the police.
The task of injecting more professionalism into the Mumbai police force is an enormous challenge. The infrastructure to build on this exists. The problem may not be one of finding the resources, but primarily one of changing attitudes, both at Sachivalaya and the police headquarters. The much bandied about expression these days, “trust deficiency,” applies very much to the police as well. Mr. Fadnavis can bring about a change where we have a police force that is trustworthy, provided he trusts them and gives them enough operational autonomy. We are certain that he understands that more autonomy for the police does not mean less accountability.