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Sunday, May 12, 2013

What ails the police?

by Pradnya Saravade and Renuka Sane.

The recent incidents of rape in Delhi have led to public outrage and calls for resignation of the Delhi Police Commissioner. The problems in police functioning and the unmet expectations of the people are not restricted to Delhi alone. There is a sense of distrust and dissatisfaction with police organisation and operations across the country. In a survey by Transparency International and the Centre for Media Studies, the police topped the list on both perception of corruption and actual experience with corruption. The challenge of police reforms looms large, and an inadequate response may prove to be very costly to not just economic growth, but overall social stability of the country.

It is important to think of three aspects of police operations:
  • Manpower
  • Competence
  • Accountability


The number of policemen per 100,000 people in India in 2011 was 137. This compares to about 217 in Australia, 393 in Hong Kong, 370 in Malaysia, 195 in South Korea, 307 in the UK and 256 in the USA.

The overall average masks remarkable variation within states in India. The first column (1) in the Table below on the four most populous states from the four regions in India sourced from the National Crime Records Bureau, shows that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have only 65 and 94 policemen per 100,000 population, a very low number even by Indian standards. These statistics reflect a very low presence of police personnel on the streets and consequently a high work-load on those on duty.

(1) (2)
State Per 100,000 population (2011) Police expenditure (% of total expenditure) (2012-13)
Uttar Pradesh 94 5.2
Bihar 65 4.5
Maharashtra 163 4.8
Andhra Pradesh 106 3.1


The State may increase recruitment into the police force over the next few years. For policing to be effective, however, the policemen need to be competent to serve the population on local crimes: from murder and rape to kidnapping and burglary, handling mass agitations of an aggrieved public against the State in a sensitive manner, and also getting into action during terrorist strikes utilising a completely different skill set. The increasing demands on all of the above require that the police undergo continuous training and upgradation of skills, and be well equipped with the latest technology and weaponry. It is, then, not just a matter of hiring more policemen but also a matter of devoting top management time to organising the police force well, and ensuring adequate inputs of equipment and training.

The second column (2) in the Table above, sourced from States of India, CMIE, shows that the expenditure on police in the four states is about 3-5% of total expenditure. A large part of this expenditure is on the maintenance of the existing police machinery. There is little scope for the police to invest in training and upgradation of skills. This expenditure on policing is not enough to even cater to the basic needs of staff and equipment.


The efficiency with which spending is converted into public goods outcomes depends on accountability mechanisms. Ultimately, the test of the effectiveness of the increase in police strength and expenditures is the resolution of crime, and satisfaction of the public on the service provided by the police machinery. There has been dissatisfaction on the evaluation system of police organisations, and a Supreme Court judgement required the setting up of state security commissions in every state. One of the mandates of these commissions is to develop a framework that measures performance through crime victimisation and police perception surveys. As yet, no state has done this. There was one randomised experiment which included a crime victimisation survey in Rajasthan. However, it has not been institutionalised as part of police policy to be followed up at regular intervals. Unless a well conceived survey based feedback loop is established, and becomes a periodic feature of the policy on policing, accountability on the desired outcomes cannot really be expected.


The personal safety of citizens is a public good. It satisfies the two tests for a public good: it is non-rival (your consumption of safety does not diminish my safety) and non-excludable (we cannot exclude a new born child from the blanket of safety).

The desire for safety is the most basic human impulse. To some extent, sectarian impulses amongst common people in India may be driven by the unmet requirement for safety in individuals who then resort to embracing kith and kin in the quest for safety. Without safety, the project of building prosperity through a market economy will stall, as the operations of complex firms break down when faced with criminality and the threat of expropriation dulls the incentive to work.

The republic needs to do more in terms of building a world class criminal justice system, and achieving safety for all. This requires improvements in laws, courts and police. For the police, this requires getting more policemen, transforming their training, equipment and management, and establishing accountability mechanisms.


  1. Dear Prof.:

    you keep making the 'publc goods' argument (as a defence of government provision / monopoly over certain services).

    However, you need a 'good government' to provide these public goods and good government is itself a great example of 'public good' as per your own definition.

    This, in my humble opinion, is a clear argument for private provision of 'public goods'. How many more decades of horrible govt. service (where even registering a police complaint is a massive challenge) will convince us to allow private individuals to receive and provide police services?

  2. It is in trying to meet the unrealistic expectations of the people - that crime should not take place in the first instance,and if it does take place the offender should be detected and traced at once - that the police behave the way they do;not registering complaints,using torture to extort confessions,and brutalizing suspects or killing them in fake encounters.The police role of keeping peace,protection of life,liberty,property and dignity of citizens needs to be emphasized more than their crime-fighting prowess which is not really in their hands,not just in India but worldwide.

  3. I think your argument that personal safety is a public good is flawed. Policing in my opinion is not a public good. It is a very private good in most cases. The large diversion of police forces in many parts of India, from policing to security of VIPs shows the contrary. Policing is clearly rival. Increase of security of VIPs reduces my personal safety.
    I also disagree that policing is non-excludable. It clearly is, better localities of Delhi have much higher patrolling. By creating specific 'high-security' zones or specific localities with 'private guards' show that policing is clearly excludable. Even within our cities, policing is unevenly distributed. The policing of densly populated slums is not as high as many thinly populated high residential cost areas. While you are right that we ought not to exclude a new born from policing and safety: That is a statement of what should be the status. It is clearly not a statement of what happens. The Indian system is very well designed to exclude certain types of persons from policing services. I agree that policing has many positive externalities; once a criminal is caught the rest of the society becomes more safe. However, analysing policing/personal safety as a public good is flawed. It is not, and therefore the checks and balances needed to ensure that it is distributed in a fair manner is very important.

  4. First, on the issue of whether policing is a public good or not. The blog mentions that personal safety is a public good. My consuming safety in a neighbourhood, does not make you less safe in that neighbourhood, and does not exclude you from consuming that safety. The means to this end, i.e. policing, is limited by resources including manpower, which leads to a situation of congestion when the number of police personnel is unable to deal effectively with the problems of security. This further creates inequitable distribution of the service of security in society and consequent dissatisfaction all around. All the more reason why the people need to demand performance standards from the police that ensure that the public good of security is provided by the state.

    This brings me to the point of privatisation of police services. To some extent, privatisation of security is already happening – for example several apartment blocks, and malls have hired security from private sources. These are private places with clear ownership titles which make private security possible. I don't fully understand what is implied in the comment regarding privatisation of police – does it imply that security will be a commodity like telephone service? Or does it still imply that it will be publicly funded, but privately executed? If the former, then safety will definitely become a rival and excluded good, which itself is hard to enforce. Is one neighbourhood only going to provide safety to the residents of that neighbourhood, and not the visitors on a particular day? Privatisation also implies varying standards across different service providers and jurisdictions which may work in the case of the telephone, but the principle-agent problems in security are of a higher order of magnitude, and how does one justify excluding people from security owing to reasons of affordability? Policing also generates high externalities, which are often not correctly priced by the market. In my opinion, there is little choice but to demand better performance from the state.

    On the issue of the high public expectation on crime prevention, I would say that there is a lot of emphasis in our present state of policing on crime detection. One finds no systemic effort at all on crime prevention. Wherever there is any crime prevention program, it happens as an individual initiative of the local officer and usually does not become a long term strategy with budgetary funding. So there is no impact of such initiatives on the long term crime and security scenario across the country.

  5. Security has primarily been a private venture - be it the lock and bars we use in our homes,the chowkidar in our shops,or the password protections we use - and it is mainly preventative.On the other hand policing is primarily maintenance of peace and order,conflict resolution,and ensuring accountability of citizens to law.Expecting public police to be chowkidars for the vast populace,or to find out an offender the victim does not know in all such cases is inviting police deviance.


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