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Shok parades can’t be the only tribute to India’s police force. Work to lower fatalities

Harsh duty regime causes acute physical and mental fatigue to police persons, leading to chronic health problems and negative impact on people-friendly policing.

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21 October is observed as Police Commemoration Day to pay homage to the policemen and women who have laid down their lives at the altar of India’s peace and security. Several hundreds of gallant members of state and central police forces make the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty, year after year. However, surprisingly, even though the police profession inherently involves hazard to life and limbs of its members, no system existed in the annals of Indian Police till the year 1959 to earmark a day for the remembrance of its fallen heroes

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21 October – History and significance

Paradoxical as it may sound, the police – the primary internal security organ of the State – have earmarked for remembrance of their departed a day on which a group of braveheart cops were killed while defending external security of the nation. Yes, it was 21 October 1959 when 10 valorous heroes of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) laid down their lives while patrolling our borders in the remote and inhospitable region of Ladakh. The Biennial Conference of Heads of State and Central Police Organisations, held in January 1960, resolved that 21 October would thenceforth be observed as the ‘Police Commemoration Day’. A contingent with representatives of all police forces of the country treks every year to the Hot Spring area in Ladakh and pays homage to those killed in action on 21 October 1959, at their memorial.

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Sacrifices galore

Given the very nature of police vocation – of fighting all kinds of anti-social, criminal and violent elements – casualties of its personnel do not come as a surprise. Indeed, with terrorism and militancy rearing their ugly heads, and the proliferation of violence in society, police personnel have, of late, become much more vulnerable to attacks on their life and limb. As per the website, since Independence, till 31st August 2020, as many as 35,403 police personnel had​ laid down their lives. This number is way too high when compared with the casualties suffered by any other public service organisation since Independence, including the Army. The up-to-date figures of fatalities suffered by the Army since Independence are not readily available in public domain. A publication of February 2019, however, mentions this number to be 25,942.

Mortalities apart, on several occasions, many more police personnel suffer injuries, including grievous ones, in the course of peace-keeping or crime prevention duties. Unfortunately, data on injured police personnel is not available in the public domain, not even that of permanent disabilities.

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Grinding working regime

What about the large scale of personnel facing ‘slow death’, day in and day out, on account of the harsh environmental factors surrounding their work? Policing indeed is a highly stressful occupation. Routinely handling conflict situations, dealing with the seedy underbelly of society, struggling with acute paucity of workforce and other resources, and coping with extra-legal pressures — all combine to form a deadly mix of stressors for personnel.

In India, the miseries of police personnel are compounded by the antediluvian ‘always on duty’ dictum inherited from the colonial era. Studies and reports have brought to light the inordinately long and arduous duty-hours running into an average of 14 hours a day, with weekly offs being a luxury granted only occasionally. Festivals and public holidays only bring more work. And, there is no provision for any monetary or other compensation for overtime work. There is hardly any family time for cutting-edge functionaries, and social life and commitments often become the casualty.

Such a harsh duty regime causes acute physical and mental fatigue, leading to chronic health problems for them, besides causing multiple negative impacts on efficient and people-friendly policing.

An empirical study on morbidity and health problems of police personnel concluded that inordinately busy and challenging work life and poor control over health lead to high morbidity among personnel. The study recommended that police departments must regularly conduct health reviews and promotional activities for ensuring a healthy and efficient workforce. Another study has inferred that police officers, whose job entails high levels of depression, frustration and stress, have higher suicidal rates than the general population or other professions. It pointed out that police suicides in India are ‘often ignored, misunderstood, misrepresented and under researched’.

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Real tribute

Police organisations all over India observe the Police Commemoration Day by holding ‘Shok Parades’ marked by pride, sombreness and poignancy, at the Martyrs’ Memorials erected in most of their units. An impressive parade is also held at the magnificent National Police Memorial, erected in the prestigious Chanakyapuri area of the national capital. Important though these ceremonial observances are, the heroes making the supreme sacrifice certainly deserve a more wholesome tribute, which should additionally include meaningful measures aimed at mitigating the causative factors of fatalities and even ‘slow death’, suffered perpetually by police personnel.

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What needs to be done?

Even though perilous, inhospitable and hostile conditions are intrinsic to police work, utmost care needs to be taken to figure out how they can be reasonably alleviated. Foremost, every case of death needs to be subjected to an objective post-mortem aimed at drawing lessons to know if and how the tragedy could have been avoided. Were faulty SOPs the culprit, or was it inadequate/inefficacious equipment, or deficient training, or any other cause? The gaps so identified obviously need to be urgently and effectively filled up. Putting in place efficacious measures to avoid similar calamities in future would be a great tribute to the gallant martyrs.

Inordinately long and fatiguing duty hours is another demon beckoning urgent attention. The colonial legacy of ‘always on duty’ policemen has to be buried deep, in the interest of a work-life balance conducive to their physical and mental health, personal/family needs, and social life and commitments. This is possible with the introduction of shift functioning, as is the norm with the modern police organisations across the globe. It would indeed require some, though not much, augmentation of workforce, as detailed in this empirical action research study conducted by the Administrative Staff College of India. The gains accruing in terms of improved policing, besides the health benefits to police personnel, would far outweigh the extra cost involved.

Another priority area relates to stress busting measures. The Tamil Nadu government took a laudable initiative in this direction by launching a Police Well Being programme in 2018, in association with the National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. The programme is aimed at improving the mental health and professional efficiency of the 1.2 lakh strong state police force. It has reportedly already helped identify 2,855 personnel, who were in need of mental health guidance. The 453 Master Trainers schooled under this initiative have, in turn, trained over 98,000 personnel in the last two years. A six-month long Diploma Course for these Master Trainers is now in the offing, which is expected to further improve the efficacy of the programme. Other state and central police organisations would do well to emulate the Tamil Nadu example by taking similar useful initiatives.

Such measures would indeed constitute the real tribute to our departed police brethren. Hope the people at the helm are listening.

Kamal Kumar is a retired IPS officer, who has been involved with several government initiatives on police reform. He is the former director of National Police Academy, and former vice-chairman, UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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