What do the police statistics hide (and what do they reveal) about crime in India?

In 2013, Mumbai Police decided they had to do something about Meow Meow. Mephedrone, known in the streets as Meow Meow, was cheap and widely available, and the police struggled to keep up. Possession of the drug had not been made illegal under the strict Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), although Mumbai police made multiple representations to various central agencies to have the substance released. prohibited.

So, in 2013, the city’s police commissioner, Rakesh Maria, ordered his forces to start arresting mephedrone peddlers under the next best option: IPC section 328, “causing injury to the human body. ‘help from a toxic substance’. Regardless of the inability of the Mumbai police to properly collect, label and present the evidence – as confirmed by the observations of the district court judges in each case – the fundamental problem was clearly the application of the wrong law. “You have to show the intention to cause harm. Is it difficult to understand and how many times have I had to tell the police? No effect, ”said a judge who had seen dozens of such cases.

The Mumbai police knew this. “You see, the hands of the police were tied. So they had to use whatever tool was available, ”Shivdeep Lande, Deputy Inspector General of Police of the Mumbai Police Anti-Narcotics Unit, who arrived in Mumbai with the nickname“ Bihar’s Chulbul Pandey ”for his straight driving and his penchant for short-sleeved fitted shirts in his previous post, told me in an interview.

A deputy police commissioner was more explicit: “We wanted to throw them out and create fear. It didn’t matter if they were acquitted; anyway, the courts always find fault with our evidence.

For a conviction under IPC 328, a court must see evidence of intent to cause harm, and the law is generally invoked in cases of food poisoning or conscious adulteration of food. Due to the consensual nature of most drug transactions, intent to harm is by definition absent. Between June 2015 and November 2016, Mumbai Magistrates’ Courts rendered judgments in at least 100 of these cases. Not a single one has resulted in a conviction. All of the indictment sheets from this era followed essentially the same script.

The complainant’s brother, son or friend was increasingly ill. Upon investigation, the complainant discovered that the victim had been forced to use drugs by the accused. Police intervened to arrest the accused, who was found with white powder on him. This powder was then “discovered” to be mephedrone.

Except none of this has ever been to court. In no more than three cases, the police could not even prove possession of the drugs. Time and time again, the basic evidence demonstrating that the drug was found on the accused was not produced, and in dozens of cases the judge admitted that the panchas (eye witness to the recovery) were “Usual panchas” set up by the police. . And then there was the issue of proving intent to injure, which the police hardly attempted to do, in the cases I investigated. Result: an acknowledgment rate of 100%.

In total, nearly 150 young people spent more than a year in prison on charges which the police knew early on to be illegal in law, but which nonetheless persisted. Yet no one – not senior police officials, prosecutors or annoyed judges – stopped what was happening. Eventually, the inclusion of mephedrone in the NDPS in February 2015 ended it.

Of the seven acquitted men who spoke to me, two admitted petty trafficking and drug use, but disputed all of the facts presented in the police case. The other five said they had nothing to do with drugs. IPC 328 is an offense not subject to bond; the accused in the cases I have seen spent between a year and 20 months in detention. An analysis of their names shows that 119 of the 148 acquitted were Muslims.

To anyone looking at the crime statistics of the time, as I was with what started out as unrelated FIR sexual assault research in Mumbai, it would have seemed like the city was inundated with poisoning incidents. , mainly committed by Muslims, and that the courts were failing victims. What would have remained hidden between the lines is that forming any assessment of India from police reports or media reports about them is a futile exercise – or worse, deception.

When more crime is a good thing

Not every journalist in the country can investigate every crime statistic for six months before publishing it, and a reading audience cannot be expected to do its research before forming an opinion on the statistics they are reporting. he reads. But understanding the universe that produces these statistics is essential, and the only way to make greater use of them. Indian crime statistics start from a point of significant underreporting, and not just for sex crimes.

Officially recorded crime rates in the country are below the global average, significantly lower than those in developed countries, and even low by the standards of middle-income countries. In 2019, India’s highest crime rates were found in the two most developed states – Delhi and Kerala.

The crime rates recorded in most other Indian cities and states, quite frankly, defy belief. Uttar Pradesh, with more than 200 million people, recorded just over 10,000 cases of “serious injury” in 2014, while London, with less than 9 million people, recorded more than 70,000 cases of “serious injury”. “assaults with injuries”, according to his police statistics for 2014-15.

Some crimes suffer from greater underreporting than others. In [a] Rajasthan, self-reported crime rates were considerably higher than police recorded rates for property crimes in particular: investigative theft rates were over 800% higher than recorded rates and theft rates qualified were over 1,100% higher than in police records.

The gap narrowed for violent crime: Rape or sexual assault rates were only 43% higher than rates reported to police, and assaults were only 11% higher in the country. investigation. Motorcycle thefts, where a police complaint becomes essential for insurance claims, were the most likely to be recorded by the police.

It’s not just certain crimes that are more likely to be reported than others; some places are also more likely to report crime than others, with reasons that have relatively little to do with the crime itself. This is probably less of a problem for crimes like burglary or theft, where the incentives to report the crime are high and the incentives not to record them are low. But for other types of crime, there are indications from both interviews with police officials and some data, that the states with the most reported crimes may in fact be the ones doing the best. to ensure full reporting, rather than being the most dangerous ones, especially for certain types of crimes.

Comparing the rates of sex crimes reported in household surveys with police records for the same year shows that Delhi consistently had higher reports and a lower incidence of actual violence than other states, while Bihar had low reporting rates and a high actual incidence.

Among larger states, actual violence and the extent of underreporting were higher in northern states with poor gender indicators than in southern states with better gender indicators. Not that you know it from media reports. “Uttar Pradesh is safer for women than many large states: NCRB report,” read the headline The time of India, the most widely read English newspaper in India, on the day the 2019 NCRB statistics were released.

The law enforcement establishment knows this, and also knows of the perverse incentives it creates for a state’s police force to suppress the numbers. “The unreliability of crime statistics in India is well known … Whenever a real effort was made to register all crimes … the numbers showed fantastic leaps that were not possible with an increase normal in a year, “said the National Police Commission. , since 1979.

Police statistics as a piece of the puzzle

India needs more and better qualitative research on crime than currently exists; unusually high numbers, sudden drops, high conviction or acquittal rates, all require a more nuanced investigation before being reported in the media as waves of crime or the failure of the police or the judiciary. On their own, crime statistics in India can be problematic, but combined with a deeper understanding of the country itself, they offer insight into the churning within.

They require triangulation with other data, including indicators of levels of development, women’s empowerment and state capacity, as well as independent household surveys. In order for citizens to have a true picture of crime and safety in their neighborhood or city, we will need to take the next step: providing them with a framework for understanding crime statistics. Maybe they can then use this data to create real democratic pressure for the right to live their lives without fear.

Extracted with permission from Whole Numbers and Half-Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India, Rukmini S, Context.