Numerous instances of highhandedness in enforcing the ongoing national lockdown have caused justifiable public anger against the police across the country in recent days. Policemen have beaten up those who violated the lockdown in many parts of the country; in Kolkota a person who had stepped out of his home to fetch milk died, allegedly due to assault by the police.
Even those who are exempted from the lockdown — journalists, suppliers of essential goods and services, and patients heading to hospitals — have faced the wrath of the police in various parts of the country.
That said, this stressed time is an occasion for the public to take a more sympathetic view of our police personnel.
Of all categories of frontline responders to the pandemic who are risking their health and lives, police personnel are the most critical.
Healthcare workers, sanitation staff, those who run grocery and medical shops, government officials in general — all of them form the frontline in the battle against the novel coronavirus , but the police are in the frontline of the frontline.
Badly equipped, overworked to the level of exhaustion, and facing the most serious threat of infection — much more than even the medical professionals — they are critical in keeping the system moving. They visit the homes of travellers and the infected, enforce quarantine, protect healthcare workers, and ensure that essential supplies move while stopping non-essential movement of people.
While we rightly outrage about the violence of the police, we must also appreciate the working conditions and vulnerabilities of these personnel in a poor country as ours. And they are out with nil or little protective gear — they wear the same substandard masks for days on end, in most places.
Status of Policing in India Report (SPIR) 2019 brought out by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies and Common Cause along with other organisations, brought out the following facts. And these are facts that apply in normal times. Imagine the extraordinary additional workload on them due to the pandemic:
— The police in India works at 77% of its sanctioned strength, or just 3/4th of its required capacity. Even at full capacity, India will be one of the weakest policed countries in the world.
— Police personnel work for 14 hours a day on an average, with about 80% police personnel working for more than 8 hours a day
— Except Nagaland, the average working hours of personnel is between 11 to 18 hours in all of the 21 States selected for the study.
— Nearly one in two personnel work overtime regularly, while eight out of ten personnel do not get paid for overtime work
— Nearly three out of five respondents from the families of personnel were dissatisfied with the government provided housing quarters
— One out of two personnel do not get any weekly off days
— Three out of four personnel believe that their workload is affecting their physical and mental health
—One out of four personnel reported that senior police personnel ask their juniors to do their household/personal jobs even though they are not meant to do it. SC, ST and OBC personnel are more likely to report this than other caste groups.
—Two in five police personnel report the use of bad language by senior officers
— Vacancies in reserved categories are disproportionately large, making the police forces particularly unprofessional when dealing with caste violence and deprived sections. There are 60% and 53% vacancies for the reserved posts of SCs in U.P. and Haryana respectively, significantly higher than the overall vacancies in those States.
Over the last five years, on an average, only 6.4% of the police force have been provided in-service training, the SPIR found. That’s talking of general policing training. Throw in the additional protocols and risks involved in responding to a pandemic, you get a sense of how ill-equipped and ill-trained our police forces are. We are not even touching the shameful of lack of logistics faced by them.
Still, in general, police forces across the country went beyond the call of duty, and law and order operations, to extend a helping hand not only to people in distress, but also to street animals in many places. In Delhi, police stations are coordinating the supply of food and relief sourced from 400 NGOs and numerous individuals on a daily basis, in 250 locations. The same is the case with Gurugram, where the police are actively working with volunteers.
In one moving story, a constable visited his wife who had a miscarriage for a few hours and returned to take part in the distribution of relief.
Such reports have appeared from across the country. The police have also put in outstanding efforts to educate the public through creative campaigns — in several States.
Not only that they are rarely appreciated, the pervasive public refusal to adhere to the rule of law is making their task even more difficult. Not only that people took the lockdown very casually, healthcare staff were attacked in many places. Landlords tried to evict frontline responders such as airline staff and healthcare workers at many places. Dealing with these incidents also this falls upon the police.
They are, therefore, the frontline of the frontline. They should not be judged by their worst examples. It’s time to give them a salute. Handshake can wait until COVID-19 is under control.