What Crime Data Reveals, Conceals

Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital – what American professor Aaron Levenstein, who died of cancer 32 years ago, said about data may be very apt for the ‘Crime in India 2016’ report released by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) late last month. As usual, newspaper headlines screamed crime capital and rape capital while reporting it. The data spread over 742 pages was interpreted – justified and opposed – by political leadership, policy makers 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 the lacunae in policing arising out of political interference or abject failure in tackling law and order.

Overall, 48.31 lakh cognizable 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, which is an increase from 82,999 cases reported in 2015 and 77,237 in 2014.

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

These numbers itself are alarming but activists suggest that these could be just a tip of iceberg as a large number of cases go unreported or police refuse to file First Information Reports (FIRs). They say that there is no political will to tackle it. 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.”

While a zero-crime society is a ‘Utopia’, the data points to a serious and still unresolved issue when it comes to tackling crime. Ensuring punishment to the perpetrators always act as a deterrent to criminals, law enforcement officials, policy makers and academicians always say. A reading of the NCRB report, however, show 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 35.5% in theft cases and 32.7% in dowry cases among others. An analysis of Crime in India reports from 2005 shows Indians lost property worth around Rs 85,000 crore to thieves but police managed to recover only articles worth Rs 14,124.39 crore.

At courts, there are around 1.25 crore cases 87.4% of IPC cases and 83.7% of SLL cases are pending trial. Of the cases disposed off by the courts, the conviction rate is at 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%.

Why is it so? Political and police leadership need to take responsibility and need to answer it too. 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 up to 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 men for one lakh population when when the standard set by United Nations is way above at 220 police per lakh population.

The vacancies have added to the burden of police as personnel are forced to work without a break and affecting the efficiency in policing. A government-sponsored study had earlier said that 75% per cent of police personnel claim they rarely manage to get a weekly off while Inspectors acknowledge that their subordinates work more than 11 hours a day. This raises the question how an under-staffed police properly investigate a case. On top of it, personnel are not trained in the latest developments in investigation techniques. Preparation of chargesheet, that becomes the foundation for cases in courts, are also in several cases badly prepared. The lacunae in chargesheets had attracted the ire of courts several times.

What to do? A recent NITI Ayog-sponsored study says a review of the police governance framework, the legal set-up, the issues ailing the police force – all call from making police reforms one of the greatest priority for the country. Government need to recruit more and train police personnel. It needs to implement the recommendations of numerous reports on police reforms, which are carrying dust in the cup boards of Ministry of Home Affairs.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s Panorama section on Dec 9, 2017)

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