BY D.C. PATHAK
The impact of corona pandemic on the economies of the world is predictably harsh because of the disruption of supply chains, shrinkage of demand in several sectors and a drastic cut in jobs and India too is affected in a major way. It goes to the credit of Prime Minister Modi that India used the National Disaster Management Act in a prudent, calibrated and bold manner to limit the devastation of life that Covid could have caused in this country — through an effective spell of lockdowns followed by phased Unlock relaxations in which states were given a primary say about fixing their limits.
The idea was to mentally prepare the population for sticking to the triple code of social distancing, face cover and hand wash for surface hygiene and acknowledge the regional profile of the contagion in a vast country like India. The loss of jobs was inevitable in a total and infinite-looking shutdown in which all human movement and business activity other than the dispensation of essential commodities, were closed. Lack of anticipation on the part of the administration and its failure even to give out some words of assurance and support to the millions of workers who were engaged in earning their livelihood in the unorganised sectors in metropolitan cities, created the tragic saga of migrant labour moving with their children on foot, to the villages of states like UP, Bihar and Chhattisgarh — they did this out of fear of death that the short notice announcement of a long lockdown had created in the absence of proper ‘messaging’ from the government machinery. With passage of time, however, the issue of migrants is now just another aggravating factor in the current economic downturn — the recall of human suffering might have faded somewhat. All eyes now are on any signs of employment picking up. Fortunately, the path of economic revival laid down by Prime Minister Modi is already creating a degree of optimism among the people.
This is because the Prime Minister has shown a deep understanding of the ‘indigenous’ dimensions of business in India and awareness of the importance of restoration of the rural supply chain. During the global economic downturn of 2008, India had stood its ground largely because of the self-sustaining character of our economy that had served us well before the onset of the new ‘globalisation’ in the Nineties. This globalisation was the gift of the IT revolution which produced the so-called Knowledge Economy that set an unprecedented pace of growth. India has been a leading contributor to the rise of IT industry and it is, therefore, extremely judicious of Prime Minister Modi to call for ‘self reliance’ for restoring economy by promoting a combination of ‘home business’ aided by re-skilled and up-skilled hands and acceleration of private and foreign investment in global industries that heavily banked on advance digital capabilities. Opening up of our railways, defence and space segments to such Private-Public Partnership is bound to yield quicker economic recovery to the benefit of all — raising objections to this policy on obsolete ‘ideological’ grounds buried in history does not hold water given the fact that India is now governed by a strong and ‘clean’ leadership of which no country can take advantage.
While the government is doing what is wise about reviving Indian economy that had been derailed by the pandemic, the vulnerability that Covid seemed to be creating in the sphere of internal governance — by impacting the crime situation — deserves to be taken due note of by both states as well as the central government. Fraudsters have been quick to capitalise on the anxieties and fears of people during the pandemic crisis and indulged in telephone fraud schemes, supply scams and false ‘decontamination’ offers. Fake suppliers have secured orders for alcohol gels and FFP3 masks. Impersonation of public authorities and medical staff to gain access to private houses with the intention of carrying out thefts and burglaries, is being reported. Rampant unemployment caused by the lockdown has bred new criminals driven by the need for money. Snatching of phones, robbing of ‘delivery’ boys, looting of shops, ‘blasting’ open an ATM after injuring the guard and even carrying out local kidnapping for ransom, have come to light. Sexual attacks on minor girls as a crime of local dimension have increased. Even educated youth with no adverse record have taken to such crimes and to creating violence in the street on flimsy grounds. Phishing attacks to swindle victims’ money, job hunting fake agencies and sextortions after trapping youngsters in snapchat and Instagram interactions seem to be multiplying in Covid times. While many conventional crimes have registered a decline, this new set of offences are going to pose a challenge for the police. Europol and FBI have taken cognisance of this trend that may persist in the long haul. They even apprehend that in the flux created by the pandemic, clandestine terror funding might get a boost.
In India, we need to step up vigilance at the Police Station level — which ironically has not been performing well generally. In the climate created by corona lockdowns, the local police will have to have an idea of the wayward elements operating in the area and habitual offenders making an appearance again. In appropriate cases, criminally inclined elements have to be subjected to personal bonds with or without sureties before a magistrate for good behaviour. The entire gamut of legal provisions — Sections 106 to 110 of CrPC — has been allowed to be rusted because the Police Station Officer has never had a close grip on his jurisdiction and the Police Station record was in disarray. These useful provisions of law for preventing crime should be given adequate attention — their relevance to the situation created by Covid in which local goons were becoming active, should not be doubted. Even one or two such cases will produce the required deterrence. Also, it is necessary that in cases involving first time offenders in the lockdown times the police brings the family into the picture so that the young elements do not become habitual offenders.
In the Covid-affected environ of restrictiveness, the police has to play a crucial role in providing a sense of safety and security to the people and responding more promptly to citizens making distress calls for help. Police being the only state machinery working 24/7, should be the rightful monitor of performance of other essential services, particularly the medical and health establishments, on behalf of the government. Unsurprisingly, however, the administration and the ruling elite found it convenient to palm off all responsibilities for implementing the lockdown orders on the policemen — there were no magistrates, municipal board officials and hospital managers on the ground to take a hand in dealing with that emergency. Obviously, for lack of briefings from senior officials, the constabulary attracted attention only for stray incidents of misbehaviour like throwing away the stuff of poor vendors and beating up ordinary folks with ‘lathis’ in public view. In reality, the police did a lot of pro-people work but the senior officers did not come forth to hold periodical video briefings to assure the public of their help and support.
Since the Covid curbs are likely to remain with us in the long term, the police leadership must get its act together and apart from gearing up to tackle the new patterns of crime, prepare the force for acting as the ‘friend and guide’ for the citizens at large. It needs to be mentioned that there is this matter of police leadership not taking enough responsibility for the continuing misdemeanours of the police station personnel who came in direct touch with the people. There is a noticeable decline in the public appearance of top police officers — who were mostly from the IPS — in situations where the course of action by way of investigation or enquiry into a case of importance needed to be put across for preserving public confidence. In the recent case of unnatural death of a well-known young film star that created a national level public reaction, the police leadership appeared to have left it to ministers to give out where the case was heading. In an entirely professional matter like this, the authentic word on any findings must come into the open from the top police authority itself. Police leadership in India has to work for restoring the impression that its crime-related tasks were not unduly influenced by the administrative or political superiors. The Indian Police Service certainly has the ability and professional strength to bring this about.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)