Tuesday, January 12, 2010


India is enraged, and rightly so, at the claim of the Victorian Police Commissioner that Indian students are safer in Australia than in India. What happens in India does not entitle any other country to gloss over crimes committed against Indians living there. Particularly when such countries have an otherwise much lower crime rate. That having been said, can one deny that that safety of ordinary Indians in India is a serious issue to which scant attention has been paid by the state till now?

The Ruchika Gehrotra case is the latest in a series that has highlighted the brazen manner in which the rich and powerful, and those who represent the face of the state, can easily subvert the law and harass and hound those who do not have powerful connections, should they attempt to cross swords with them, no matter that they are right. Equally disturbing is the fact that even ordinary criminals can roam free if they grease the right palms of policemen and politicians.

As Kiran Bedi never tires of saying, the problem begins at the very first step of an aggrieved citizen's interaction with the police. Getting an FIR registered with the police can be a traumatising experience, and in many cases, it is not registered at all, for a host of reasons, one of which is to keep crime statistics artificially low. While that enables police officers to falsely claim that the law and order situation is good and that citizens are safe, it encourages criminals to keep committing more crimes, making ordinary Indians feel increasingly unsafe and cynical about the instruments of the state that are meant to do exactly the opposite.

About two years back, I had done a comparative analysis of statistics pertaining to the number and type of of prisoners in Indian and American prisons, and conviction rates. The startling findings showed that nearly all of those who run foul of the law in this country, and should find themselves in prison, simply get away. There are around one crore - yes the figure is right - criminals, big and small, who should be behind bars but are out there on the streets.

Such being the shocking state, can law abiding Indians be safe in India? Read on.

A recent study for the Pew Centre for the States in the US, released on February 28, 2007 has revealed that more than 1 in 100 adult Americans were in prison at the start of 2008. The US also has the distinction of having the largest incarcerated population in the world, with 2,319,258 people behind bars.

As per figures released by the India’s National Crimes and Records Bureau (NCRB), India had just 3,58,368 inmates in jails across the country as on December 31, 2005. The US, with a population which is one fourth of India’s over 1.2 billion, has almost six and a half times as many citizens in jail! India beats hollow even 36 European countries which have a combined total of 1.8 million prisoners. Only one in approximately 3345 Indians is in prison.

We should be thumping our chests with pride at these startling figures which can easily be interpreted to prove that Indians are the most law abiding people in the world and are an astounding 30 times more so than Americans! Should India not be, therefore, the safest place to live in and a really liberal, mature and free democracy, to be looked up to and emulated by even the US? If we further consider that only 1,08,572 inmates, 30.3 percent of the total lodged in various Indian jails, are convicts, the picture should become rosier thrice over.

Just over one lakh convicts in a country of 1,20,000 lakhs! Dream figures that any nation would be proud of. Why, then, is there a hushed silence? Why is nobody, means nobody, talking about this distinction that should be making us all feel safer and taller?

A close examination tells a completely different story.

As per NCRB figures, in 2005, 2,37,076 inmates, a whopping 66.2 per cent of those in Indian jails, were under trial prisoners. Of these, 27.9 percent were charged with murder. Of the one lakh convicts, 50.8 per cent were undergoing life imprisonment.

Why so few prisoners and even fewer convicts in India? Is it because Indians are very law abiding? Are all the newspapers and TV channels which are screaming full every day about rapes, murders, burglaries, kidnappings, corruption, and as many other crimes as you can think of, getting it all wrong? Are they just sensationalizing stray incidents to make the very rosy picture look black?

A comparative analysis of conviction rates of a few countries done by Neeta Kulkarni, a blogger, is revealing. According to her, Japan has a conviction rate of 99.97 per cent, China 98 percent and Russia around 90 percent. The conviction rate in the US is between 65 to 80 percent. Even the UK, whose colonial legal system we have poorly copied, has an overall conviction rate of 74 percent!

As per former Punjab Police Chief KPS Gill, the overall conviction rate for all crimes in India is just 6.5 per cent, with the litigation process often extending to decades. More significantly, the conviction rates, under normal laws, for terrorist crimes in the regions afflicted by widespread terrorism would be less than 0.001 per cent, according to Gill. Even under TADA, the erstwhile anti terrorist law, the conviction rate was a horrifyingly low of less than 2 per cent.

Ironically, that low conviction rate was one of the main arguments used to do away with TADA and POTA. Now, under normal laws, terrorists have a 99.999 per cent chance of escaping conviction for waging war against the country. India sure is a safe place, not for the law abiding citizen but for the ruthless criminal who kills innocent people. Can anyone really argue with Gill when he says about the doing away of anti terror laws: “If the inefficiency and incompetence of India’s criminal justice system are to be accepted as an argument against the existence of specific laws, we would have to throw the entire book of criminal statutes into the dust bin”?

What do all these facts tell us? In India, nearly all of those who run foul of law and should actually find themselves in jail are simply getting away.

This happens at every step of the system. At the first stage itself, if we use the US figures as a benchmark, with an average conviction rate of 70 per cent, over 75 per cent of criminals get ‘weeded out’ by bribing completely corrupt Indian policemen who let them go without even creating a record of their crimes. Going by figures of those in jail in the US and the assumption that Indians are at least as law abiding as the Americans - and the system there is relatively free from corruption – it is safe to conclude that almost one crore Indians who should be in prison today are free, having paid the police to let them go!

Of the few whose crimes are reluctantly registered by the police, nearly 94 per cent get away at subsequent stages by either bribing their way through the system or getting lawyers to beat the hopelessly lax provisions of law and escape conviction. That leaves the microscopic few who actually get convicted for their crimes; more than half of these are those who have committed the really serious and not too bribe-friendly crimes that merit at least a life sentence. A large proportion of the remaining about 50,000 in jail will, I am sure, have been convicted for quite serious crimes like rape, attempt to murder, armed burglary etc, the type of crimes which are really difficult for the police to cover up.

Think again. One crore criminals, big and small, who should be in jail are roaming our streets fearless and free. How many of them will feel encouraged to commit more crimes is anybody’s guess. Are law abiding Indians safe? Is this country a safe place for the ordinary citizen who is not connected to those who matter or the one who does not have money to buy protection or justice?

Delhi Lieutenant Governor Tejinder Khanna was recently in the dock for saying that North Indians take pride in breaking the law. The quite damning figures and facts highlighted above reveal a very deep and almost terminal systemic failure of India’s police and justice system. What they tell is that the real law breakers that Khanna did not speak about are those who are supposed to be the custodians of law. And they go about this job with real pride and no remorse whatsoever.

Remember, some of the key players in the system, apart from the politicians, are from the elitist “steel frame” that the British had put in place. Yet, and perhaps that is why, no one talks about changing it for the better, even overhauling or doing away with it altogether. That is why little has improved since the British left 60 years ago. For milking more out of the system, however, there have been and will continue to be hundreds of truly creative ideas and jugaads.

Recently there was a side issue which did create a furore. In the US, against the overall figure of one in hundred, one in fifteen African American adults is in prison i.e. 6.7 percent of all African Americans are in jail. No one there is giving this huge disparity the kind of racial or communal tones that many in India are to the unreleased and politically motivated statistics of the Sachar committee on the comparative figures of Muslims in Indian prisons.

The figures are more than their population percentage but are not even close to those of African Americans. Yet, this has unleashed the predictable talk of anti Muslim bias etc, with the sole aim making petty political capital. Had someone analyzed this data along with the types of crimes for which Muslims are in jail and had it emerged that they beat the national average for, say, murders, rapes and other heinous crimes, I don’t think anyone would have gone around shouting that Muslims are all that.

In the US, they have put one in a hundred Americans in jail so that law abiding citizens can enjoy the fruits of freedom. That nation is not prepared to allow criminals and anti social elements to diminish the quality of life and the liberty of Americans. That is what good governance should be about. Here in India, good governance is not even a factor; petty politicking and corruption override almost everything else.

If things continue this way, the proportion of dangerous criminals roaming free in your neighbourhood may soon reach such levels that you and I may have to start openly paying protection money to them and even their uniformed brethren so that we are not harassed by competing elements earning their livelihood solely out of crime. Statistics suggest that crime may soon become the single largest employer. Those in the system will then become much richer than they are today. The parallel economy will also quietly become much, much bigger than it has ever been.

India will then truly be a great place to live in! At least for those who can afford to pay for their safety, guaranteed by criminals within the system and without!