From outrage to action

Understanding the dismal state of law and order needs dispassionate analysis

There is fresh rage on the dismal state of law and order in India today. That rage is entirely appropriate. What has happened in India is a disgrace. The interesting and important question is: How can the problems be solved?

Moral outrage does not lend itself to good policy analysis. As with the problem of corruption, the problem of law and order requires sophisticated thinking. Anger and outrage, coupled with amateur knowledge of political science and public economics is a sure path to poor policy analysis. What matters is shifting anger to analysis and action. Many angry citizens are asking for draconian penalties for rape. But if laws are modified to prescribe this, then rapists are more likely to kill the victim so as to reduce the probability of being caught. The immediate impulse to do something often leads us to weak answers.

India Gate

What would it take to make the police and courts work better? The three ingredients that are required are incentives for politicians, resources and feedback loops.

Incentives for politicians
Politicians will deliver law and order if they think that this is what will get them re-elected. Politicians in India have always felt that the way to win elections is to focus on welfare programs for the poor. As long as this is the case, the dominating narrative will be of poverty, inequality, and welfare programs.

In all thinking about governance, it is useful to distinguish between “public goods” and “private goods”. Public goods are those that are “non-rival” (your consumption of safety does not reduce my consumption of safety) and “non-excludable” (it is impossible to exclude a newborn child from the environment of safety). The legitimate purpose of the state is to pursue public goods. All citizens gain from public goods and all voters should respond to these benefits. The first and most important public good is safety, which requires building the army, the police and the courts.

The Indian State has instead concentrated on building welfare programs, of government giving private goods to marginal voters. The priority of the Indian State is the theme of poverty, inequality and welfare schemes. Politicians need to understand that this impairs the nation. The pandemonium in Delhi over the last few days shows the need for upgrading the priority of law and order in the eyes of the politicians and making it the primary concern.

There are undoubtedly problems in the leadership and management structure of the police. Once the politicians want law and order, it will drive them to recruit the leadership that is required and undertake structural reforms, so as to get the results. As an example, look at how the politicians broke with PWD and setup NHAI. Similarly, it was politicians who set up the Delhi Metro. The question that matters is: Do politicians want law and order? From the 1960s onwards, the minds of politicians have been addled by welfare programs.

If a certain amount of money is spent as a gift on a few marginal voters, it makes a difference to winning the elections. If that same money is spent on public goods, (e.g. better safety for all) it should make bigger difference to winning the elections since more voters gain. The question is: Do politicians understand this and act in response? Some believe that voters in India have been shifting from identity politics to welfare programs to bijli-sadak-pani (electricity-roads-water) in their priorities. The important issue for voters should be public goods.

The second issue is resources. India needs much more staffing in the police and the courts. This includes both technical staff (e.g. constables and judges) and support staff (e.g. clerical staff, operators of computer systems, etc.). Courts and police stations need to be high quality workplaces with air conditioning, computer systems, modern office equipment, canteens, web interfaces to the citizenry, lighting, toilets, and the likes. The police require a certain standard of living. If they live and work out of quality houses and offices, they will be improve both in terms of the quality of the intake and in terms of how their behaviour evolves on the job.

As Robert Kaplan says, underdevelopment is where the police is more dangerous than the criminals. One element of this is the biases in recruitment. The police needs to evolve into a more sophisticated work force, with gender, ethnic and religious diversity that reflects the cosmopolitan structure of the populace.

Changing all this will cost money and India has very little of it. Every rupee that is spent on public goods has to come out of the spending on welfare programs. Improving the police system and the courts will require cutting back on welfare programs. Voters are likely to prefer the outcomes when money switches away from the UPA’s “flagship programs” to public goods. At present, spending on police and courts (which are core public goods) is classified as “non-plan expenditure” and is treated negatively. Spending on private goods like welfare programs is classified as “plan expenditure” and grows lavishly year after year. In the UPA period, plan expenditure has gone up by four times in 10 years and these priorities need to be reversed.

The other critical resource required is the time of the top management. The simple question that I would like to ask Sheila Dixit or Manmohan Singh is: What fraction of your time do you devote to public goods? My fear is that the bulk of their time is spent on welfare programs. When the top management is not focused on law and order, safety faces a severe degradation.

Shifting the spending on public goods away from welfare programs is not a bad thing for the poor. The lack of safety is a regressive tax: it hits the poor more than the rich, who are able to insulate themselves from criminals, police and courts. It is the poor who are ill-treated, both by the criminals and the police.

Feedback loops
Contemplating law and order in the country requires measurement and quantitative analysis which at present is very poor. We need a Management Information System (MIS). In many parts of the country most theft, murder and rape cases are not reported to the police. In this situation, we have no details or statistics about the crimes taking place. What you measure is what you can manage. Our first priority should be to setup crime victimisation surveys.

The Bombay police can be held accountable once we get a graph updated every month about the crime rate in Bombay, supplemented by quarterly data from crime victimisation surveys. This would generate feedback loops whereby one can judge whether Sheila Dixit has improved law and order in Delhi on her watch. In turn, she will also have the incentive to recruit the finest leadership for the Delhi police, to resource them adequately and to get things done.

Why are these good things not getting done? 

There are three opinions about what has been going wrong.

The first lies in the incentives of politicians. Why do politicians pursue private goods for a few when they can instead spend money on doing public goods that benefit all? Why does democracy not push Indian politicians towards the Centre? I think one element of the answer lies in first-past-the-post elections. Today in India, winning elections does not require pleasing all voters; it only requires a base of 30 percent of the voters. This gives politicians a greater incentive to dole out goodies for the 30 percent and not work on public goods that please all voters. This reduces the prioritisation for public goods.

The second issue is that of urban governance. The defining challenge for India today is to make its cities work. But our constitutional structure is confused on the location of cities versus states. The feedback loop from the voters of Mumbai do not drive improvements in governance in Mumbai.

The third issue lies in the intelligentsia. Western NGOs, aid agencies and the World Bank are focused on inequality, poverty and welfare programs. This generates incentives for individuals to focus on these issues owing to the funding stream and career paths associated with such organisations. These large funding sources and career paths have generated a distorted perspective within the Indian intelligentsia. We need more minds in India who think in terms of the basic principles economics and political science, without the distortions that come from the worldview of development economics. We blame politicians in India for being focused on welfare programs. But to some extent, the intelligentsia influences them. It is the job of the intelligentsia to hold their feet in the fire, and hold politicians accountable for public goods.

Photo: vm2827