As India slowly recovers from the second wave of the pandemic, and prepares for the third one, Covid-appropriate behaviour in public places remains critical as ever and will continue to play a role in the country’s fight against the coronavirus. The police, being the principal law enforcement instrument, enforce lockdowns and other restrictive mechanisms to ensure there is no space for laxity. However, pandemic policing is by no means limited to undertaking restrictive measures.
Police attention and intervention is also required to ease tremendous distress, caused by acute shortages of life-saving medicines, oxygen, hospital beds and other essential goods. Surely, imbalance in supply-demand is not the only cause of this scarcity; these shortages are compounded by nefarious activities of hoarding, black marketeering and profiteering. This makes strong action absolutely indispensable to allay miseries of harried citizens.
Rumour-mongering is yet another serious malady. Incessant streams of unverified or fake news of deaths and serious health complications can induce severe anxiety among even healthy people. The possibility of deliberate attempts of misuse of various social media platforms by anti-national or anti-social elements, who have malicious intentions of igniting public disorder and social unrest, cannot be ruled out. Effective prevention and control of such heinous activities is also a part of pandemic policing.
Think about it: there are restrictions on movements and liberties of common citizenry, including vulnerable sections of population; acute privations arising from severe shortages of medical and other essential goods and services, whether real or artificial; financial and other hardships; and inordinate psychological trauma of the kith and kin of infected or deceased individuals. Add wild rumours to this and you have a deadly cocktail, to whip up public anger and outbursts of social unrest.
The solemn responsibility of the police to effectively deal with every single threat spawned by the pandemic is huge and the task, enormous. What compounds this further is its unprecedented nature, where there are no standard operating procedures (SOPs) to fall back on, nor any instructions in police manuals for field personnel to refer to. The sudden onset and rapid spread of the contagion precluded any training as such, for the foot soldiers or their supervisors.
Also remember police personnel’s own vulnerability to infection. Policing involves proximity while dealing with infected violators, handling dead bodies, and so on. Large numbers of cops contracted the disease themselves. As per data collected by the Indian Police Foundation, an independent think-tank working for improvement in policing, as many as 2,02,466 police personnel had tested positive by 1 March 2021, and 1,207 lost their lives to Covid. The number had grown to 2,79,071 infections and 1,745 deaths by 10 May. Such large depletion of workforce, further accentuated by vast numbers proceeding on leave to take care of infected family members, would necessarily force additional workload and stress on the remaining personnel.
It is commendable that despite this, the Indian police have risen to the occasion, and jumped into action, while learning on the job alongside. Yes, there have been sporadic, isolated incidents of inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour by a few but, by and large, police personnel have been performing their enforcement tasks with laudable sincerity, patience and restraint. What now demands the earnest attention of police leadership is putting an end to those sporadic incidents of inappropriate behaviour, some of them absolutely unacceptable.
Granted that strict compliance of pandemic-related regulations is in the utmost interest of public health, but it must be borne in mind that hardships caused by prolonged lockdowns, coupled with fear, hopelessness and gloom has affected citizens seriously. Policemen must keep in mind that a good number of those found on the streets may be hapless citizens, out to procure essentials, or for other genuine reasons. They cannot be treated as criminals. They all need to be handled with due sensitivity, compassion and empathy. Brutish or insensitive police behaviour in an overall pessimistic scenario would be too much to bear. It may test the limits of people’s patience and kindle anguish and despair. It doesn’t take long for despair to mutate into disaffection, and disaffection into violent outbursts, even posing serious threats to public order and internal security. Enforcement duties, therefore, have to be performed with equanimity — albeit tempered with firmness. Training and regular briefing of personnel can play a meaningful role in this regard. Proper training may not be feasible with personnel already on incessant deployment. However, briefings can be imparted through instructional messages or videos via social media. A good example is provided by a video of Hyderabad Police Commissioner briefing his personnel, circulated through internal WhatsApp groups.
Educating the masses
Another crucial area is educating the public about the dangers of violating Covid regulations. This can be done by liberally using social media as also by enlisting the support of community elders, community liaison groups, mohalla samitis (local residential groups) among others. Some police agencies have done a commendable job in this regard, like the Jodhpur Police, which produced and widely circulated an appealing video that highlights the perils of unnecessary loitering in pandemic times.
The police must walk the extra mile and get earnestly involved. It is important that they carry out a thorough post-mortem of their performance in pandemic over the past one year, and derive lessons for future.
Broad takeaways should include the following: a) Standard operating procedures be urgently elaborated for different pandemic policing tasks; b) An efficacious module on pandemic policing be introduced in the basic training of all field police personnel; c) Brief online or social-media-based training capsules be devised for refresher training of personnel; d) A Special Task Force may be created in every city/district to focus on the tasks of (i) prevention and control of black marketeering, hoarding and profiteering, and (ii) effectively dealing with rumour and panic mongering; and last but not least, (e) Special attention to prevent spread of infection among field police personnel and their family members.
The Indian police have had a history of successfully tackling all challenges, howsoever formidable, head on. They have done a fairly good job of pandemic policing too so far, despite all odds. They need to be enabled and empowered further to perform even better in future.
Kamal Kumar is ex-director, National Police Academy and former vice-chairman, UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)