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Police reform: Need of the hour

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The present police system in India resembles the colonial Irish constabulary and Indian Police Act of 1861. Each state and union territory of India has its own separate police force. Article 246 of the Constitution of India designates the police as a state subject, which means that state governments frame the Police Acts, rules, and regulations that govern each police force. There is also central legislation in place; states which have not passed their own Police Acts are governed by the central Police Act. In addition, different aspects of police work and procedure are governed by a multiplicity of laws. Case law and jurisprudence also lay down procedure to be followed. The detailed rules and regulations, which set out duties, policies, and operational procedures, are contained in state Police Manuals.

There has been almost 30 years of debate on policing and reform in India, with several government-appointed commissions submitting reports and recommendations for police reform to government. The most comprehensive recommendations came from the National Police Commission (NPC), which from 1979-81, completed eight reports and drafted a Model Police Bill.

Why police reform is necessary?

The newest episode of sensational issue of Hathras gang rape has gripped public imagination. Righteous indignation abounds on social media and the press. Underneath that gloss, grief and agony probably crowd out every other emotion.

Police is an exclusive subject under the State List of the Indian Constitution. States can enact any law on the subject of police. But most of the states are following the archaic Indian Police Act 1861 with a few modifications. Also, police have become the ‘subjects’ of Parliamentarians and legislators – with a high degree of politicization and allegiance towards ruling party. India still follows the Police Act, 1861, framed by the British, largely with an aim to crush dissent. The Act was a reaction to the sepoy uprising of 1857.

Challenges faced by police force in the country

  • Collection and analysis of preventive intelligence: The most important and challenging task faced by the police today is the collection and analysis of preventive intelligence and follow-up action, especially pertaining to terrorists and insurgents who pose a constant challenge to internal security.
  • Criminal Investigation: The other important, but badly neglected, aspect of policing is criminal investigation. Standards have declined sharply in the last few years. Unfortunately, the so-called premier investigation agencies like state CIDs and the CBI are no exception.
  • Vacancies: Many states continue to have huge vacancies. Even the apex court’s direction to fill these posts has not yielded the desired results.
  • Outdated arms and equipment: Most state police forces continue to use obsolete equipment and arms, and lack the latest technology that would help in investigation and intelligence-gathering.
  • Lack of Organisation: There are no organisations to provide the police forces with tested and dependable specifications on equipment and technology. They are generally dependent on vendors, who often sell outdated or not-so-suitable technology.
  • Lack of proper training: Well-trained and motivated human resources are key to any police force’s success. But, most training academies are poorly staffed and often don’t have the necessary facilities. Institutions need to be upgraded in terms of facilities, equipment and technology.

Issues with current policing system

Police accountability: Police forces have the authority to exercise force to enforce laws and maintain law and order in a state. However, this power may be misused in several ways. To check against such abuse of power, various countries have adopted safeguards, such as accountability of the police to the political executive, internal accountability to senior police officers, and independent police oversight authorities

Crime Investigation: Each police officer is responsible for a large segment of people, given India’s low police strength per lakh population as compared to international standards. While the United Nations recommended standard is 222 police per lakh persons, India’s sanctioned strength is 181 police per lakh persons. After adjusting for vacancies, the actual police strength in India is at 137 police per lakh persons.

Crime investigation and Underreporting of crime in India: In 2015, the conviction rate for crimes recorded under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was 47%. The Law Commission has observed that one of the reasons behind this is the poor quality of investigations.

Poor Police infrastructure: Modern policing requires a strong communication support, state-of-art or modern weapons, and a high degree of mobility. The CAG has noted shortcomings on several of these fronts.

Police-Public relations: Police requires the confidence, cooperation and support of the community to prevent crime and disorder. A police-public relation is an important concern in effective policing. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission has noted that police-public relations is in an unsatisfactory state because people view the police as corrupt, inefficient, politically partisan and unresponsive.

Constabulary related issues

Qualifications and training: The constabulary constitutes 86% of the state police forces. A constable’s responsibilities are wide-ranging, and are not limited to basic tasks. For example, a constable is expected to exercise his own judgement in tasks like intelligence gathering, and surveillance work, and report to his superior officers regarding significant developments. He assists with investigations, and is also the first point of contact for the public. Therefore, a constable is expected to have some analytical and decision-making capabilities, and the ability to deal with people with tact, understanding and firmness. 

The Padmanabhaiah Committee and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission have noted that the entry level qualifications (i.e. completion of class 10th or 12th in many states) and training of constables do not qualify them for their role. One of the recommendations made in this regard has been to raise the qualification for entry into the civil police to class 12th or graduation. It has also been recommended that constables, and the police force in general, should receive greater training in soft skills (such as communication, counselling and leadership) given they need to deal with the public regularly.

Promotions and working conditions: Promotion opportunities and working conditions of constables are poor, and need to be improved. Generally a constable in India can expect only one promotion in his lifetime, and normally retires as a head constable, which weakens his incentive to perform well.  This system may be contrasted with that in the United Kingdom, where police officers generally start as constables and progress through each rank in order. Further, in India sometimes superiors employ constables as orderlies to do domestic work, which erodes their morale and motivation, and takes them away from their core policing work. Hence, the orderly system should be abolished across states.

Housing: Importance of providing housing to the constabulary (and generally to the police force) to improve their efficiency and incentive to accept remote postings has also been emphasised by expert bodies, such as the National Police Commission. This is because in remote and rural areas, private accommodation may not be easily available on rent. Even in metropolitan areas, rents may be prohibitively high, and adequate accommodation may not be available in the immediate vicinity of the police stations affecting their operational efficiency. 

Way forward

Scholars have called Supreme Court of India (SC) as the only institution working towards police reforms in Indian states. This acclaim largely comes from the top court’s intervention in the 1990s through cases such as Joginder Kumar v. State of UP [AIR 1994 SC 1394] and D. K. Basu v. State of West Bengal [(1997) 1 SCC 416], where guidelines were passed to try and secure two rights in the context of any state action- a right to life and a right to know. Through the guidelines, the Court sought to curb the power of arrest, as well as ensure that an accused person made aware of all critical information regarding the arrest and also convey this to friends and family immediately in the event of being taken into custody. It took a decade, and in the form of amendments, as the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2008 to give statutory backing to these judicial guidelines; it remains part of law today.

The SC went even further, and perhaps too far, in the case, Prakash Singh v. Union of India [(2006) 8 SCC1], where it issued directions for police reform;

  • Constitute a State Security Commission
  • Fixed two-year tenure for DGP
  • Two-year term for SPs and SHOs
  • Separate Investigation and law and order functioning
  • Set up Police Establishment Board
  • Set up Police Complaint Authorities at state and district levels
  • Set up National Security Commission at Center level.

Reforming the police in India is sine qua non to ensure a functional democracy where citizens enjoy their rights without fear. In this regard, critically examine how the Supreme Court has played its role in enforcing police reforms and with what outcome.

In the Indian political context, it is the institution of police that didn’t get its share of reforms till date. It is still dependent on the colonial police act, 1861. The citizens enjoy rights without fear only with harmonised order that can be guaranteed by police reforms.

It took 11 years for State of Tamil Nadu to actually implement Prakash Singh directions (a law passed 2013 but only given effect in 2017), many state governments passed executive orders and some passed weak laws to circumvent this decision and still there is no implementation of above direction. Several States remain in contempt of the Supreme Court’s judgement, given some insight into how seriously the issue of reform ranks in the scheme of things for governments.

Still, Police works under the extraneous pressure and agents of high politicians. So, if India has to become a vibrating democracy where there is rule of law and right of citizens are ensured, police reforms are much needed.


The transformative reforms in the Indian Police is possible through appropriate interventions in skill building and attitudinal training, through reforms that are both bold and practical, and through collective action of all stakeholders to drive a nationwide campaign for change, keeping in mind, the difficult conditions under which our police functions. The demand for police reforms is over 100 years old with the first such attempt made by Indian Police Commission of 1902- 03 under British rule. Since then, it has seen five state commissions and six national-level commissions with all their reports gathering dust. But, it is imperative that more needs to be done than mere structural changes within the system. It is essential to now look at the police as a service organisation meeting those needs of the society that are essential for safety, security, quality of life and peace. Community involvement, problem oriented policing and proactive policing strategies need to be adopted in the changing scenario of society.

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