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India's Justice System: Is Police Complaints Authority Wishful Thinking?

This mars a public interest reform remedy as ordinary folks fear the police, can't afford justice and fear reprisals

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This week marks the sixteenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s significant judgement aimed at systemic reform of the police (Prakash Singh Vs Union of India, 2006). Amongst seven other directives, the most important one is that Police Complaints Authorities (PCAs) must be set up at the state and district level to hear complaints against police up to Superintendent of Police and Deputy Superintendent respectively.

Constituted of retired judges, civil servants, police officials and civil society members, these are intended to hear allegations including custodial deaths, grievous hurt, rape and inquire into complaints of extortion, land grabbing and other serious abuse of the authority.

Non-registration of FIRs and dissatisfaction with the investigation form a major chunk of these.

Every committee from National Police Commission (1979-1981) to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Police Reforms (2022) has recommended the creation of police complaints authorities yet clearly, by the look of it, there is neither hurry to create or capacitate them to the fullest.
Snapshot
  • This week marks the sixteenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s significant judgement aimed at systemic reform of the police (Prakash Singh v Union of India, 2006). 

  • Non-establishment of PCAs deprives remote populations of local remedies and delays efforts to remedy common patterns of bad behaviour. In July, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) mentioned in Parliament that 24 states and 7 Union Territories had constituted these redress machineries with some variation like assigning the functions to Lokpal (Odisha) and State Human Rights Commission. 

  • At a time when National Crimes Report Bureau (NCRB) reports a one year increase of 30% in cases nationally registered against police personnel (4720 in 2020 and 6164 in 2021) and a 15% rise in the police custodial deaths (76 in 2020 and 88 in 2021), the Haryana assembly introduced an amendment bill taking away the suo-moto cognizance powers of the SPCA

  • Too often officers become part of the PCA. The rationale offered is that police officers will know the ‘inside workings, have experience and their presence will help the authority get cooperation from the establishment itself.

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Effective, Speedy Redressal a Distant Dream

Non-establishment of PCAs deprives remote populations of local remedies and delays efforts to remedy common patterns of bad behaviour. In July, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) mentioned in the Parliament that 24 states and 7 Union Territories had constituted these redressal machinery with some variations like assigning the functions to Lokpal (Odisha) and State Human Rights Commission.

This, despite, repeated urgings from various High Courts including Telangana (2021) and Gauhati (2022). Delhi got its PCA only in June 2019. As late as 2020, only 16 states had them at the district level.

Even if established, they are not fully functional which necessitates people from distant regions to travel to the state capital to make complaints or wait for justice till the authorities are constituted due to jurisdictional issues(Bommer v State of Maharashtra, 2016)

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Police Reforms in India: Authorities Still Willy-Nilly

That said, where they have been set up, PCAs have not had a wholehearted welcome from either the political executive or police.

At a time when National Crimes Report Bureau (NCRB) reports a one year increase of 30% in cases nationally registered against police personnel (4720 in 2020 and 6164 in 2021) and a 15% rise in the police custodial deaths (76 in 2020 and 88 in 2021), the Haryana assembly introduced an amendment bill taking away the suo-moto cognizance powers of the State Police Complaints Authority (SPCA).

This takes away a particularly strong public interest reform remedy as it is well recognised that ordinary people fear the police, find remedial mechanisms of justice complicated, expensive, and difficult to access, and above all, fear reprisals.
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Too often, at the expense of effectiveness, composition and mandate have deviated from the Supreme Court’s robust design of an independent body tasked with acting as an immediate corrective of malpractice and a goad to steady improvements in overall policing.

Ineligible People Throng the Police Force

There is an incessant problem with the appointment of members. A full set of important appointments could not be made in Kerala. 23 out of 25 posts remain vacant over 7 years in Maharashtra. Letters of appointment may be long delayed and ineligible persons appointed as Chairpersons in Tamil Nadu and Haryana. The names sent by the selection committee were not considered by the government in Andhra Pradesh, all as a result of “bureaucratic rigmarole”.

An MLA facing 15 criminal charges and a government with several police cases were appointed in Gujarat and Maharashtra. High Courts have often raised eyebrows at the appointment of members with numerous complaints themselves looking into police excesses (Rajkumar v Sanjay Saxena, 2021) and questioned if governments are afraid of a retired Judge heading the authority.

Too often, officers become part of the PCA. The rationale offered is that police officers will know the ‘inside workings', have experience and their presence will help the authority get cooperation from the establishment itself.

This is wrong at so many levels. It assumes the weakness of an authority to get cooperation which in any case should be a given between police and a statutory authority.

It gives undue weightage to one member by creating a reliance on his goodwill and ‘connections’. It allows for bias in the form of having the ‘police point of view’ represented on an adjudication which should be entirely independent of any ‘point of view’ and most of all, by reducing the arms length distance between police and adjudicator, it undermines the perception of fairness and hence of approachability.
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Infrastructure, Staff Shortage Plague Police Bodies

A government advisory suggests that each PCA have at least one computer-knowing stenographer, one office superintendent for running the office and one employee with multitasking skills.

Yet many SPCAs struggle to work with manpower and infrastructure deficits. As recently as July this year, reports point out that no space is available for the Member Secretary’s chamber.

This ensures an inability to efficiently discharge duties, causes delays, case pile ups and one more general disappointment in pursuing remedies at this forum.
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Non-Binding Nature of PCAs

Though PCAs have no power to impose penalties, the Supreme Court has made it amply clear that their recommendations of a departmental or criminal action against the errant cop must bind governments. However, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) 2020 reported that only nine states make the recommendation of PCAs binding and as many as six states do not empower the authorities with suo-moto powers.

The government only needs to give an explanation why it is not taking action against the delinquent cop which renders the whole procedure redundant. A recent RTI revealed that out of the 1,487 complaints it received between 2017 and 2019, the Maharashtra SPCA only advised action in 22 cases with no clarity on the action taken. All this makes for ineffectual and discouraged bodies. The police establishment does not relish the idea of an authority outside their own establishment and frequently stalls its ability to provide quick redress, which has also allegedly led to the resignation of the SPCA’s Chairperson in some cases.

Damningly, a frustrated Supreme Court labelled PCAs as “lameduck authorities”. Indeed, with so many ways of cobbling them hand and foot, it is safe to say that PCAs are neither well-known nor the first 'port of call' for the aggrieved citizen nor particularly of concern to the police establishment. Nothing like a stakeholder survey of either their difficulties or satisfaction with performance has been contemplated.
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Police Reforms Should Be an Exercise in Righteousness

Resistance to repair and reform from a false sense of esprit the corps perpetuates rough, lawless and ineffective policing. Instead, correctives whether applied internally, at court or via specialised agencies like the PCAs should be welcomed. Wholehearted cooperation with strong correctional mechanisms are an aid to police leadership and its political supervisors.

It sends a clear warning to rank and file that aberrant behaviour outside the law will not be tolerated by anyone in authority. It signals a commitment to righteousness at the very top.

Over time, the ability to identify and rectify types and locales of bad behaviour, establishes a virtuous cycle that helps prevent and detect crime and bring police and citizen into a relationship of growing trust that benefits all in the society.

(Ritika is an LLM Candidate at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Ms. Maja Daruwala is The Chief Editor of India Justice Report 2019 and 2020 and Senior Advisor, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, advocating for rights and social justice for over 40 years. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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