A flawed background check system

India does not have a single national database of crimes and criminals that would have exposed the Uber cab driver’s record

December 12, 2014 03:04 am | Updated June 15, 2016 10:02 pm IST

FINE PRINT: “If Uber had given an undertaking that the background of each of its drivers would be vetted, it is liable; otherwise it is not.” Picture shows the offender Shiv Kumar Yadav being produced at a court in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

FINE PRINT: “If Uber had given an undertaking that the background of each of its drivers would be vetted, it is liable; otherwise it is not.” Picture shows the offender Shiv Kumar Yadav being produced at a court in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Following the unfortunate Uber taxi episode in the national capital, there is again an animated debate whether the justice system in India is doing its part in ensuring the safety of women. Sweeping remarks have been made on the state of law and order in Delhi, a megapolis which has a positively bad reputation in matters of crime. However, what is good is that the media has spoken out in unison after the incident against Uber’s inability to conduct a background check against the offender— this is one ground to believe that those in public service cannot afford to be indifferent or inactive and will have to scrutinise their performance closely.

The incident has exposed the many chinks in the armour of the administration. The most shocking information is perhaps the fact that Shiv Kumar Yadav, the 32-year-old offending cab driver, has a criminal past. In 2003, he was arrested in Uttar Pradesh for attempted molestation. He was again arrested in 2006 for carrying illegal weapons. He was also charged with arson and booked under the Goondas Act. And in 2011 and 2013, he was involved in two separate cases of rape and robbery. This is the record of a serial criminal whom Uber brought under its flimsy arrangement of contract drivers. It looks as if no serious background check was done on Yadav before he was allowed to ply his vehicle under the Uber tag. One document that is in circulation is a certificate supposedly issued to Yadav by the Delhi transport department, the authenticity of which the latter has questioned.

Certificates for a bribe

A case has been registered against Uber and the legal validity of this will be known if and when Uber is taken to court. It is not known what obligation rested with the company in terms of verifying the character of each of the drivers it employed. If it had given an undertaking that the background of each of its drivers would be vetted, then it is liable; otherwise it would not. In any case we need one comprehensive administrative probe and report to bring out all the facts on Yadav’s past. This would enlighten the public on the system’s shortcomings and would help examine how they can be remedied.

Uber has, no doubt, been grossly negligent in providing security. According to media reports, the cab did not have a GPS that would have helped in tracking the vehicle’s movements. We are also still unclear about what background checks were done on Yadav before he was hired.

Readers must know that the background checks, as they are done in India, have two broad features. First, the prospective employer approaches the police to obtain information on the potential employee’s history. Some States and Police Commissionerates have a system whereby they agree to do a record search and give all the available information for a fee. However, many others do not entertain private requests saying they simply do not have the time for it. It is this unhelpful stance of many police forces that breeds corruption and distortion. It is unfortunately true that a job applicant can get a certificate with half-truths or wrong information if he or she is willing to grease the palms of police staff. There are instances of policemen, who are not associated with either the clearance process or with day-to-day policing, issuing character certificates, without any checks, to an applicant for a price.

There are also several specialised agencies which are hired by major private corporations to get background checks done on job applicants. These agencies confront many stumbling blocks in the form of bureaucratic indifference and hostility. Ultimately in most cases they manage to get only half-baked police reports which they pass on to those hiring them because they have no other option. Each of these reports costs about Rs. 3000. In such a scenario, Uber may not even have got all the dope on Yadav, even if it had sought this information. The fact is that we are saddled with a corrupt administration bolstered by a corrupt society, which is far too willing to pay speed money to anyone in authority. It is against this setting that the recent Delhi incident and the processes that govern radio taxi services have to be viewed.

Unlike many other countries in the West, India does not have a single national database of crimes and criminals that would have exposed Yadav. The much-touted Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System, which would have served the purpose, has remained a dream. The Rs. 2000 crore project has managed to cover only a few States; the majority of States are still outside its ambit.

Mechanisms to track criminals The Central government should ask someone who is an independent authority and who is of repute to have a quick look at this and impose a deadline by which we can have a dependable database that can be quickly accessed online. Actually the ideal situation would be for the National Crime Records Bureau and the State Crime Rerecords Bureaus to upgrade their capacity quickly, for issuing clearance certificates to individuals for a prescribed fee. A national register of sex offenders also needs to be built immediately and maintained by the NCRB to serve as a reference point for all employers, both private and government. This is important to set up a mechanism to track down dangerous criminals.

It must also be remembered that sexual assaults on women cannot be totally eliminated. They can only be reduced in terms of numbers, that too with a more alert and conscientious law enforcement agency. Building deterrence with more stringent laws can help only a little. What is also required is a calculated denial of opportunities to predators, both in public places and in homes, where, incidentally, a large number of sexual assaults by close friends or relatives go unpunished.

It is unfortunate that some women’s organisations resent helpful suggestions from well meaning civil servants on how women should adopt a few safety precautions to avoid being assaulted. The charge often made by most of the activists is that the administration is attempting to curtail women’s freedom by giving patronising advice. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The whole dialogue between women and the police could break down if such a mindset dominates any healthy exchange of views. This is why we plead for moderation and a spirit of understanding, which could help in tackling a problem of this magnitude.

(R.K. Raghavan is a former Director of the CBI and D. Sivanandhan is a former DGP of Maharashtra.)

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