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‘Urgent police reforms are need of hour’

By Sarwar Kashani, IANS,

New Delhi, July 17 (IANS) The latest terror bombings that ripped through India’s financial and entertainment capital have shifted the focus back on the much-awaited police reforms and the absence of preventive intelligence gathering in India.

Reforms would mean doing away with the colonial legacy in the form of the archaic Police Act of 1861, if the nation is to be saved from terrorist outfits and homegrown subversive elements, say experts who have been working on bringing about these changes. The blasts have once again exposed known flaws in India’s internal security structure allowing a silent growth of homegrown terrorists, experts say.

The main problems India faces are the vacancies in police forces and inadequate training of force personnel. These problems are only aggravated by the poor intelligence gathering model that is being followed.

According to official figures, India’s police-population ratio is just 120 per 100,000 people. Globally the ratio is an average of 270.

India has over 20 big and small central intelligence agencies – including the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) – apart from state police intelligence wings.

India’s capacity to repel a terror attack may have improved, but the country still lacks the ability to pre-empt such strikes, experts say. Ground-level intelligence gathering is too poor to prevent modern threats, according to them.

When Ajai Sahni, a known security expert, was asked if he thought there are chinks in India’s security establishment, he quipped: “There are gaps, enormous gaps.”

“Can you believe that India’s main internal spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau, has less than 5,000 field agents to gather ground information from a population of 1.2 billion?” Sahni told IANS.

“And their primary job is to do political intelligence for the ruling parties.”

Police officer-turned-activist Kiran Bedi has a question for the government, particularly India’s union home ministry, which looks after internal security management.

“How much did the Indian police forces reinvent themselves after the (2008) terror attack in Mumbai? You are managing a crisis by creating these intelligence agencies, not preventing a crisis. How will you prevent terrorism in the absence of a trained policeman who is your eyes and ears on the ground?”

Bedi told IANS that if normal policing “is absent and you don’t have people on the ground to collect information, these things can happen”.

Sahni, who runs the Institute for Conflict Management that focuses on internal security research in India, said if ground-level intelligence gathering were there, then of course “we wouldn’t have taken so long to know who did the Mumbai blasts again”.

“Haven’t we identified the subversive elements that need constant surveillance? If so, how do we allow them to grow and strike again?”

He recalled an old intelligence gathering system in the country of having a watchman in every village. Those village watchmen used to report to intelligence officers at the local police station every day with whatever information they had.

“This system has been done away with. But we need a system like this. Not the redundant meta-institutions like the NIA, which are wasteful energy hubs. Nothing prevents terrorism than local intelligence gathering.

“You can have a whole web of technology to aid these agencies. You can have a grid or a data centre linking 21 databases. You can have National Counter Terrorism Centre. But if the input doesn’t come from the ground, what will you feed them with and what will you work on?”

Since 1979, governments have set up a number of commissions to reform the police but their recommendations have been largely ignored because politicians, especially in the states dont want them, as they want to keep the police under their thumb.

In October 2005, the union home ministry constituted the Police Act Drafting Committee (PADC) – commonly known as the Soli Sorabjee Committee – which submitted a model police act a year later.

The Supreme Court on Sep 22, 2006, acting on the former police officers’ petition, asked the central government to kickstart reforms which included separating the investigation and law and order functions of the police and have a system of preventive intelligence gathering system in place.

But all that is still awaited.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at [email protected])