Indian Decade

Urban Policing Mess

A traffic accident in Delhi is a reminder about the poor quality of policing in urban India.

An incident that took place this morning as I was taking my young daughter to school is symbolic of a fundamental problem that now ails much of urban India—everyday policing is a mess. It’s a problem that will have significant consequences for India's citizens.

As our driver was just starting the car after the traffic lights had changed at a major intersection, a vehicle abruptly rear-ended ours. Since both cars were just starting to move, the damage done to our car was negligible (although my daughter was bit shaken up). However, rather than check everything was OK, the driver of the errant vehicle tried to pass us in an attempt to flee. Our driver stopped the car, stepped out, and forced him to pull over.

Almost immediately, a few traffic policemen who were idling nearby sauntered over and started to hector our driver for having stopped the vehicle in the way of on-going traffic, even though he had turned on his emergency lights. At this stage, I felt compelled to step in and tell the policemen rather bluntly that we were the aggrieved party and that as the offender was trying to flee we had had to take prompt action. I told them that having done so, we would now move the car to the side of the road and deal with the incident.

No doubt because I was dressed in a two-piece summer suit, spoke Hindi with a thick accent and interspersed it with English, my class ‘standing’ meant the policemen chose not to challenge me. However, they continued to upbraid our driver. Once again I intervened, but this time a bit more sharply. They eventually walked away, muttering under their breath. Yet not once during this whole exchange did they move to record or report the incident. Instead, they went back to their previous positions and chose to just watch the flow of traffic.

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I’m not writing about this incident to vent my frustration about the conduct of the police, but to underscore how routine policing duties have all but collapsed in urban India. If this is the state of affairs in the nation's capital in the wake of the recently concluded Commonwealth Games—when there was much fanfare over traffic control and security—what might one expect in India's smaller cities from local law enforcement? Would their reactions have been even more callous and indifferent? And would the New Delhi traffic police have dealt with me differently had I not been aware of my legal rights and conscious of my class ‘privileges’?

There’s much thoughtful discussion in India about the significance of the rule of law and how it has eroded over six decades of independence. This morning's episode, however, is perhaps a disquieting reminder that the question isn’t one of mere academic or intellectual concern, but a vital element of public policy and indicative of the quality of life in urban India.