Criminal mistake

Last week, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram released Crime In India-2010, a report by the (NCRB) which compiles and analyses crime statistics in India for the year 2010. At present, this report is the only authoritative source of information about crimes in the country. There are 187.6 crimes recorded per lakh of population in India, varying from 87 in Uttar Pradesh to 424.1 in Kerala. The report also tells us that compared to 2009, crime has increased by 4.9 percent in 2010. During 2010, crime against women (2,13,585) has gone up by 4.8 percent compared to 2009 (2,03,804). The all-India conviction rate for crimes is 40.7 percent but only 9 percent accused were convicted in Maharashtra.

Image: Jonathan Davis

However, these statistics have severe limitations as all crimes are not reported to the police and if reported, many are not registered by the police. An Indian Police Service officer, Tripurari has validated this under-reporting of crime data in a study, Policing without Using Force: The Jalpaiguri Experiment. As the Superintendent of Police in Jalpaiguri, he made registration of FIRs mandatory at the 17 police stations of the district. Outcome: the monthly average of the number of recorded cases jumped from 249 in the pre-experiment phase to 1,060 after filing of FIRs was made mandatory.

The study, published in the Indian Police Journal in 2010, asserts that major offences (such as theft of automobiles, murder or dacoity) are “less susceptible to suppression or minimisation” because these are widely publicised. The degree of suppression of crime, or burking in police parlance, is more prevalent in the case of minor crimes like petty thefts. But burking is not unique to Jalpaiguri or Bengal. It is rampant all over India.The international rights group, Human Rights Watch has noted that “despite legal obligations under Indian and international law, police throughout India frequently fail to register complaints of crime.” It cited the Lucknow police which had reportedly registered FIRs for only 4.5 percent of the complaints they received in 2007. This when you thought that the Jalpaiguri experiment where only 24 percent of the crime was recorded was shocking.

The problem of burking can be overcome by an independent, third-party validation of the NCRB data by a public siurvey. In most developed countries, an annual Crime Victimisation Survey is conducted to provide a more realistic and actionable picture of crime—estimate the number and types of crimes not reported to the police, identify people most at risk, and map public attitude towards crime and towards the criminal justice system.

These surveys are found to be a very important source of information about crime levels and public attitude to crime. In 2005-06, only 42 precent of crimes reported during the British Crime Survey (BCS) were reported to police and only 30 precent were recorded by the police. BCS thus provides the British government with an important alternative to police-recorded crime statistics. Without BCS, the British government would have no information on the 70 precent of crimes which went unreported. BCS further identifies those most at risk due to different types of crime. This is used to design and inform crime prevention programmes and improve public attitude towards police.

Information underpins all planning. An empirical approach towards policing can be sustained by reliable and comprehensive data on crime. In the absence of authentic data, all attempts at planning for policing in India are an exercise in futility. A survey to ascertain the real state of crime in the country by conducting an annual crime survey has to be topmost on the government’s agenda. National Statistical Survey Organisation can be tasked by the government to undertake this survey in India; perhaps starting with 35 biggest cities in the first phase.

Till that happens, the official crime data will continue to paint a rosy picture. And the vision of transforming data into information, and information into insight shall remain a  futile dream.