Need to shun policing by suppression

The first 63 clauses of the new Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act aim to usher in reforms primarily in the road safety and transport sectors. But instead of improvement, the new law might widen the police-public gap because of the challenges faced by the traffic police across the country.

Navdeep Asija
Traffic Adviser, Punjab

India is facing a challenge to move from policing by suppression to policing by democracy. The latter means the implementation of legal frameworks, institutional processes and mechanisms already in place to hold the police accountable. 

The British had adopted the current policing model in their colonies, including India, to rule by the suppression of masses. On the other hand, their own police are structured on the principles of community policing, i.e. ‘policing by consent’. With the mandate to controlling people, the Indian police force consists of only five per cent of officers and 95 per cent constables and head constables. As a result, most of the police recruitment is based upon physical attributes and basic educational qualification instead of mental aptitude, community relationships and social inclusion. The subsequent training also fails to focus on these aspects. There might be a few individuals who manage to imbibe these qualities, but that’s not the norm.

In India, traffic control and regulation is also entrusted with the police, who are not trained in modern principles of traffic management. From their recruitment to training, the traffic cops have to follow orders and issue challans.

Going by the capacity of the traffic police with several states, the probability of getting challaned is once in four-five years. Without improving this probability, which is a governance and policing issue, the Motor Vehicles Amendment Act (MVAA), 2019, has been introduced with higher penalties. The law glosses over the need to improve policing structure, strength and training and focuses on penalty. 

The share in the total challan for overspeeding, drunk driving, use of mobile phone while driving, helmetless driving and not using seatbelt is just one to five per cent. With the new law and heavy penalties, under-reporting may increase and this percentage may go down. The type of basic training of the traffic police personnel and their understanding of the traffic challan will lead to more visible mistakes in this era of technology and social media. In future, officers might ask junior staff on the ground to reduce challaning, because such mistakes of the traffic police are brought out by the public more aggressively in the public domain, eventually leading to more embarrassment to the police and conflict with the public. 

The heavier penalties would widen the gap between the police and public, undoing any progress that has been made towards community policing. Studies have shown that hiking penalties don’t lead to great benefits. The national road safety agency of the Netherlands has observed, “Making penalties heavier as an isolated measure, has a little extra effect... On the other hand, frequently conducted and very visible traffic checks, which are unpredictable in terms of time and place, bring about the general prevention of traffic violations.” 

Experts successful in controlling road traffic deaths concur with these findings. Daily visible enforcement on the street and absence of strict laws and harsh penalties promote deterrence. In most European countries, more than 250 drivers per million population are checked for the breath test every day. In Ludhiana, more than 500 drivers should be checked for alcohol every day, especially during evening hours, for the law to have any effect.

But the police force doesn’t like the job of being traffic regulators and hence it will remain unimplemented. Many instances are being reported where the public and police are fighting over the challan and rules. In Haryana, a two-wheeler rider was fined Rs 23,000, of which the only applicable challan that would make a difference to road safety was for not wearing the helmet, i.e. for Rs 1,000 only. Since police personnel lack training as to what is important for road safety, they only focus on penalties. The world over, traffic penalties are adjusted with the purchasing power parity and the severity of the offence, but in India, the Ministry of Road Transport follows no such norms. In this case, the registration of the vehicle could have been checked indirectly and discretion of the cop concerned was required. 

But since creating fear among the public is a prime objective of policing by suppression, we lose the intent of the challan. It might show a short-term positive impact, but in the long term, we may end up suspending a few more traffic policemen and hence technically ill-equip and demoralise the traffic police force.

The onus to implement the MVAA would be on the traffic police and the judiciary, both of which lack technology, resources and manpower. The strength of the traffic police varies from state to state. In Chandigarh, there are 65 traffic police personnel per one lakh population, while Delhi has 30 and Punjab and Haryana have just eight. The national average is five per lakh population to manage 20 crore vehicles on the road. Urban areas have greater strength than rural areas, where 55-60 per cent of the road accidents are happening.

In 2015, the Bureau of Police Research and Development suggested that norms for the deployment of policemen and equipment should be based on the number of vehicles in the states and cities. Most of the states have one-third of what is required as per the current requirement in terms of manpower and types of equipment.

Due importance to the judicial process and the judiciary has not been given in the new Act. Four years ago, an RTI reply had revealed that the number of pending cases before various courts of Punjab, including the Punjab and Haryana High Court, was over 15 lakh and every year, an average of five lakh new traffic cases were being added, mainly related to non-compoundable challans. 

In view of the new law, these numbers and pendency before various courts are likely to go up. The traffic police do not communicate their data with the judiciary electronically, and the new law and ministries/departments concerned are silent on this count. One non-compoundable challan requires one judicial work hour minimum, for listening, judgment and disposal. A huge demand is, thus, being made on states reeling under limited resources and workforce.

There are three contributing factors to road crashes: driver, vehicle and road environment. The present challan system mainly focuses on the driver to reduce human errors in road accidents. To book the other two — faulty infrastructure and vehicle — the police force is not even trained enough. The entire policing revolves around the victim and the accused. So, in a nutshell, without bringing in the much-needed traffic police reforms and training, the new legislation would not bring any change on the ground, but might widen the police-public gap and overburden the judiciary.

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