It is indeed ironic that we recently celebrated a much-touted Constitution Day on 26 November, replete with marches, placards and pledges. Barely have the echoes of the pledge died down, we have witnessed back-to-back incidents that make a mockery of the justice, liberty, equality and fraternity that we so proudly promise to deliver to ourselves, year after year. The rapes of Delhi, Unnao and Hyderabad among so many lesser known cases, have brought to the forefront, brutality that has been unheard of, in recent memory. Yesterday’s fire at Anaz Mandi of Delhi is no isolated incident – and the death toll of 43 is conservative to say the least. A leading TV channel interviewed a local who guesstimated that there could have been more than 700 people sleeping in that ill-fated factory which was gutted in the fire. We perhaps have no idea of the actual number of deaths. Tragic as that may be, the Karol Bagh hotel fire that killed 17 people is of as recent vintage as 12 February this very year. The reasons are identical. Lessons learnt are identical. Delivery of correctives is zero.
I am not really sure if our national conscience has yet been shaken out of its customary indifference – or ever will. Commentary over these incidents have been ranging from political mudslinging to pontification. Nobody seems to be saying – ‘Sorry people, we messed up big time- let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. This should never happen again.’ The encounter killings of the Hyderabad rape accused have split public opinion in the country right down the middle – from people who have hailed the police action as being delivery of swift justice to those vehemently opposed to action that completely compromises fair trial and judicial authority. That the fires at Karol Bagh and Anaz Mandi, as also in earlier cases such as the Upahar tragedy, were results of gross negligence and lack of supervision by authorities coupled with unscrupulous commercial interests of the owners is indisputable – and completely indefensible. However, the amorphous nature of responsibility and accountability in such cases will rarely result in either convictions or correctives, as history has repeatedly shown.
I think there are four areas under which these ills need to be tackled and I hope somebody is listening. The first is delivery of law and order. The Prime Minister, in a recent address at the Police Academy, mentioned that our citizens must feel safe – obviously hinting towards the role of the police in instilling public confidence. This can happen only if the long overdue Police Reforms are implemented in right earnest. Our police to public ratio is one of the lowest in the world. Technology-wise, we cannot compare with advanced nations in the employment of technology for policing. Our police forces are not too well paid and have punishing work schedules. They work under constraints and threats that are peculiar to those connected intimately with political activity and public order. Unless sweeping police reforms are put in place, we will see incidents repeat themselves with frustrating regularity and ‘preventive or deterrent policing’ will continue to elude us. Earlier piecemeal reforms have only increased the number of DGP level officers in states to almost 14 or thereabouts. We need more beat policemen – more Indians, less Chiefs.
The second is delivery of justice. The Nirbhaya case has lingered on for 8 years without finality. Similarly, our system of justice and appeals, coupled with the lack of adequate courts, judges and other justice delivery systems have ensured that the common public have lost faith in the judiciary to provide timely delivery of justice. The poor have it even worse. They just cannot afford to be clients of our judicial system. Therefore, it is my guess that for every high-profile case that makes headlines, there could be hundreds that go unreported and this thought should make us shudder. Is it surprising, therefore, that encounters and extra-judicial killings are finding supporters? Do we wish to regress to kangaroo courts, khap panchayats and encounter killings as the norm? I think this depends on how soon we can get our judicial system to deliver justice within a reasonable period of time. How much time is reasonable? Clearly, 1 day is too little and 8 years is far too long. Justice must be swift to be credible. Our activist friends should act to get this aspect going along with their efforts at voicing their dissatisfaction over encounter killings.
The third area is the delivery of administration. It is an understatement to say that public faith in delivery of administration by government authorities is abysmally low. Online services have made many services easier than before and that is certainly the way ahead. What remain to be addressed are activities that compulsorily require human intervention – providing fire clearances and building completion certificates are cases in point. Here, I am not pointing fingers at government officials alone – there is an entire ecosystem of owners, contractors, mafia and officials that manage to subvert systems which subsequently collapse with calamitous repercussions. Once again, it is no surprise that when an incident happens, deflection of blame becomes more important than fixing accountability. Time-bound and corruption-free delivery of administration is key to restoring public faith and ensuring public safety.
The final area, and perhaps the most important, is adult education in raising social awareness in every aspect where we lack as a nation. Be it public safety, respect for women, cleanliness, pollution prevention, bribery, corruption, child safety, alcoholism, tobacco consumption or drug abuse, there is need for serious adult education. As far as crimes against women are concerned, men – more than women need education. Not just on how to handle proximity to women but on the terrible consequences to society and to themselves. Certain laws must scare the living daylights out of the public – and law against rape must be the first that does so. In this context, I would strongly advocate the tag-line “Beta Padhao, Beti Bachao.”
Late President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam famously said “ A dream is not what you see when you sleep; a dream is something that does not let you sleep.” While he never alluded to nightmares, I do sincerely hope that these ghastly nightmares keep us awake thinking of lasting solutions. May good sense prevail and may we, the people of India, be assured of better days ahead.