Lest We Forget!

Lessons from the Pandemic

Dear Readers,
This issue of your journal presents the latest Status of Policing in India Report on policing in the times of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have all braved the crisis for close to two years now. The entire gamut of our existence has been affected by it – our personal life, family life, social life, professional life, and life as citizens and consumers included. Mercifully, the worst seems to be over for now, but its reverberations are bound to linger for the rest of our lives.

The SPIR 2020-21 (Volume-II) unravels the effect of the pandemic on public order. This issue brings to you the main findings of the study in a nutshell and the highlights of the event which marked its release. By now, most of you are familiar with the idea of the SPIR studies. These collate data and insights for the policymakers to improve the rule of law. The present report is in continuation of the earlier SPIRs on the citizens’ trust and satisfaction with the police and their attitudes, adequacy, and working conditions.

Many of our members and friends attended the online event and have also read the report. Others can download it from the website or by clicking here. (If you have not already done so, please visit the refurbished website, commoncause.in) All SPIR reports are in the public domain. You can also watch the event on YouTube by clicking here. The excerpts of the speeches are given in the following pages. The event started with a presentation of the report and a panel discussion, and closed with a keynote address by Justice Deepak Gupta, former judge of the Supreme Court of India.

Initially, only one SPIR study was planned for 2020 on policing in regions affected by conflict, extremism, or insurgency. It was designed to explore how policing is carried out in disturbed areas that are affected by the presence of armed groups and paramilitary forces. The biggest challenge for the team was to go out and conduct face-to-face surveys in the middle of the Covid-19 restrictions and a series of lockdowns. The teams did so with aplomb and managed to bring out two reports instead of one.

Policing under Unusual Conditions

Fortunately, a safe but small window of time appeared towards the end of 2020. In between online Zoom meetings, our teams at Common Cause and Lokniti-CSDS utilised our time to prepare a parallel survey on the pandemic and public order. Citizens and police personnel were approached in 27 districts of 11 states (for Volume I) and 19 cities of 10 states/UTs (for Volume II) under trying circumstances. These were eventually brought out as SPIR 2020-21 (Volume-I and II) on two disparate areas of policing in extraordinary environments.

It was important for us to cover the theme of policing the pandemic from three main standpoints: (a) to examine the citizen-police interactions during the lockdown; (b) to scrutinise the enactment of new protocols like wearing of masks, maintaining social distancing, restricting movements and containing contamination zones; and (c) to upgrade and modernise our disaster preparedness, especially with regard to fallouts like the sudden and reverse migration of workers from cities to villages.

All governments across the world tried to monitor the spread of the virus by mobilising surveillance techniques and by tracing human contacts at the cost of the individual’s privacy. This was done mainly through mobile phone apps using live locations of individuals who contracted the disease and anyone who came in their contact. This real-time information was collected at a gigantic scale which was unimaginable before the pandemic. Our own ‘Aarogya-Setu’ app was widely used, sometimes even coercively, by the citizens, police persons, health workers, among others.

But the enforcement of restrictions and lockdowns—along with contact tracing and surveillance—became the responsibility of the police. Their orders came at very short notice, and even without notice (We got only a four-hour notice for the first nationwide lockdown). The police personnel were required to check the violations of the new protocols at any cost. This gave rise to disproportionate use of force at some places and negative public-police interactions almost everywhere. People felt hurt and angry because the violations could have been done inadvertently or under dire necessity. The report covers all these aspects and more.

A Challenge Called Disaster Preparedness

The police persons were neither trained nor prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude, especially in the midst of changing orders and protocols. They sang and danced at some places to spread the new codes of behaviour and used danda at others with tragic results. They often went out of the way to help fellow human beings while risking their own lives. But they almost habitually took to unlawful detentions, bizarre punishments, and arbitrary ways of enforcing their orders. They did what they have been trained (or not trained) to do, and in the absence of the crucial standard operating procedures (SOPs).

The surveyors spoke to citizens and police personnel about the impact of the pandemic on them, their families, and their immediate surroundings. The cops seemed definitely conflicted between their call of duty and human obligations. The citizens too vacillated between admiration for the good work of the cops and condemnation for their acts of arrogance and brutality. This is consistent with the conclusions of earlier SPIR studies that the citizens’ involvement and expectations in policing were rather low.

The present SPIR study covers the changes in the attitudes, performances, and working conditions of the police personnel on the ground. It also examines if the restrictions of the pandemic applied equally to all sections of society, particularly to the rich and poor. There are two additional chapters devoted to the media coverage of the crisis and the experiences of the migrant and relief workers, the latter based on a separate, rapid study with the two groups.

Most of you are aware that the SPIR studies are part of the police reforms programme of Common Cause which started in the nineties. These are small steps in the direction of meeting our objective of defending and fighting for the rights of all sections of citizens. Guarding and improving the rule of law is a precondition for fulfilling that objective. And that is why we do not see police reforms as a one-time event but as a continuous process. We are grateful that our members and philanthropic partners support that vision.

We sincerely hope that the members, well-wishers, and friends of Common Cause will go through the findings of the latest SPIR and give their valuable feedback to us. The team would be grateful if you could also watch the video of the launch event and let us know if you have any suggestions for the future.

Vipul Mudgal




SPIR 2020-2021 (Volume II): Policing in the COVID-19 Pandemic >>

July-September, 2021