A sudden lockdown saw the police learning on the job
That 11% of Karnataka’s policemen tested positive and close to 90 lost their lives is evidence of their major role as frontline warriors
The year 2020 dawned with the usual revelry, but what one was to discover very soon was that it would pose an altogether new set of challenges for the Karnataka police. As the pandemic took flight, country after country closed its borders imposing a lockdown of varying severity in their cities and States.
In India, the onerous task of enforcing the lockdown fell on the shoulders of the police. It was a whole new ball game for which the police was neither equipped or trained nor prepared. Police high-handedness in the early days of the lockdown rightly led to loud criticism from aggrieved citizens.
But during the tapering phase, the same police force was praised for the numerous acts of selfless service personnel rendered to different cross-sections of society. The picture of the brave Punjab Head Constable stopping lockdown violators at the risk of his arm being severed will be etched in our memory as long as the horrors of COVID-19 are remembered.
That 11% of Karnataka’s policemen tested positive and 87 breathed their last as on November 2, 2020, is evidence of their major role as frontline warriors in our fight against the pandemic. The policemen have endangered their personal safety and those of their families by going beyond the call of duty, often working round-the-clock without relief or a break.
Migrant labour camps
The lockdown and the abrupt cancellation of road and rail transport stranded thousands of migrant workers from within the State and other parts of the country. Police handled the thankless job of maintaining order among restive labourers in camps, ensuring distribution of food and dry ration at these camps and other food shelters before transporting them to train and bus stations after coordinating with authorities. Kitchens had to be organised in many police stations to feed not just personnel working overtime, but also daily wage earners who were suddenly rendered without livelihood.
Another feature of the lockdown was the imposition of day curfew, when people could not move out of their homes even for medical emergencies without a valid pass. Issue of local passes and those for inter- and intra-State movement became the responsibility of the police. While the pressure on the police was tremendous, the crisis for citizens was of such humongous proportions that they had to trace and recollect their long long-lost contacts in the police department to seek their intervention for a pass!
On drug abuse
During the latter part of 2020, close on the heels of the drug-related investigations by the Narcotics Control Bureau against Bollywood stars, the police launched raids on Karnataka film industry personalities. Many film stars were arrested, while some well-connected accused managed to evade arrest.
Huge hauls of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances were recovered. This may mislead citizens into believing that there has been a sudden spike in drug crimes. On the contrary, drug abuse and related violations of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act have always existed and have been increasing by leaps and bounds. Enforcement of the NDPS Act, like any other special law, calls for proactive enforcement. Action in fits and starts is no solution.
Now that we have functional narcotic units in Bengaluru city police and the CID, sustained action against drug crimes is the need of the hour lest they spiral out of control calling for extreme measures, like in Punjab.
Drop in crime
The month-long lockdown and other restrictions that followed resulted in a steep decline in crime. With little or no traffic on our roads, accidents came down drastically. With most institutions and industries, and even places of worship virtually closed for a major part of the year, there were hardly any gatherings and no scope for public order situations save the migrant workers issues.
But the diversion of police resources to tackle COVID-19 related work came at a heavy price: day-to-day work, which is the bulwark of policing, was put on the backburner. Reeling under shortage of manpower even at the best of times, preoccupation with non-core functions and piling arrears of record updation, the pandemic set the clock back. Citizen-centric work, such as beat patrolling, investigation, and preventive action, suffered a setback.
The damage done
But then that is the nature of police work. The events that unfolded this year, from the pandemic to the sudden and stringent lockdown, are unprecedented in history. The Karnataka police will have to learn to live with it.
(S.T. Ramesh is a former Director General and Inspector General of Police, Karnataka State)