Social Distancing Vs Curfew: Policing a Contagion

India’s police force has performed its fair share of duties in times of emergencies. But nothing in its experience prepared it for what the prime minister announced on the night of March 24, three hours before it came into force: a 21-day nation-wide lockdown.

S T Ramesh. Pic: Janaagraha/YouTube

Trained and accustomed to catching criminals, maintaining law and order and regulating traffic, there is nothing in its experience or training that qualifies the police force to deal with a contagion like COVID-19. “Curfew” is perhaps the only term in the police vocabulary that comes close to defining what the doctors have prescribed: social distancing.

Little wonder then, that the police went about addressing this social/humanitarian challenge with law-and-order tools. The results were there for all to see.

Citizen Matters spoke to a former head of the Karnataka State Police, S T Ramesh, about the newest challenge before the police and the latter’s shortcomings in dealing with it. Ramesh, whose initiatives in training and sensitisation of the police force are well-documented, believes that while the first objective of the lockdown – minimising social contact – was achieved to an extent, the police failed to keep essential services unhindered.

“Nine days into the lock down, citizens are unclear about how to go about buying vegetables, medicines, visit hospitals for ongoing treatment for chronic illnesses,” said Ramesh in an email interview. “There was no clarity about passes. The online grant of passes does not seem to have worked. The suggestion that people visit police stations with personal applications to get passes was shocking”.

Excerpts from the interview:.

Q: The police is in the forefront of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Was such a duty ever foreseen for a force that is primarily meant to maintain law and order?

S T Ramesh: The situation arising out of COVID-19 is unprecedented. Police is neither trained nor equipped to deal with such a situation. But being the government’s visible arm, it was tasked to enforce the lockdown.

As a professional force, the police is accustomed to enforcing prohibitory orders, say U/S144 CrPC or a curfew with a view  to maintaining public order, where the goal is to isolate and apprehend trouble mongers and ensure that law-abiding citizens stay safe indoors. Further, public order situations are normally confined to a city, a district, or a state. At worst, it can be a nationwide phenomenon. But never was there a global scenario where more or less the whole world is under a lockdown.

This presents a problem of a different dimension altogether. How do you ensure that people access medical help, buy essentials on a daily basis, travel to visit an ailing relative and innumerable such daily chores which are essential and urgent? How do you ensure that essential services personnel reach their places of work under lockdown? These are the questions the police leadership should have thought through. In addition, police has to deal with irate citizens who are frustrated over the lockdown, non-availability of essential items and medicines with fear psychosis adding to their stress.

Q: Is the police equipped to handle the duty given to them today? Is a different approach — and not a law and order one — warranted in this hour?

S T Ramesh: Police is neither trained nor equipped to handle this extraordinary situation. So, they seemed to have gone about doing what they normally do in serious law and order situations, using rough and ready methods.

Unprecedented as the situation undoubtedly was, it could have been mitigated to some extent. The police leadership, which is expected to rise to the occasion during new and unforeseen situations, has been found wanting.

The ambiguous orders, lack of planning and poor communication of policy by the government added to the confusion. The police rank and file should have been briefed on how to go about dealing with various sections of citizens, viz poor people, migrant labour, senior citizens, women and those stepping out for genuine and essential purposes. They were not dealing with law breakers. That was the critical difference which had to be explained to them. The harshness against citizens and the consequent bad press could have been avoided. The initial fiasco in issuing passes would not have arisen had the system been streamlined with proper planning.

Karnataka police  boasts of being a pioneer when it comes to technology and social media. What is the use if they are not exploited to the optimum level during a crisis like the present one? They should have used social media extensively to educate and prepare the citizens as well as the police. In addition, every possible conventional option such as public announcements through PA system, using NGOs and media should have been resorted to. Persuasion and repeated appeals should have been the principle weapons in their armoury. Force should have been eschewed altogether. The complete implementation of the lockdown could have been delayed by 24 hours.

That said, the government was less than fair to the police in entrusting this major responsibility without adequate notice, planning or preparation. Yet, the situation could have been handled better had the police leadership provided the initial guidance and communicated the need to enforce the lock down with utmost sensitivity. One cannot sweep our failures under the carpet on the pretext that it was an unprecedented and unforeseen situation. The rank and file cannot be faulted.


There is an old Institution called the ‘citizens’ committee’ at each Police station, meant to act as a bridge between the police and the citizens. Their services should have been utilised to spread word about the lockdown. If these committees have become defunct, the police has itself to blame.

Community policing (CP) is a modern international policing philosophy. The Bengaluru City Police has been implementing it in fits and starts. The practice of CP, if properly harnessed, would have greatly helped better implementation of the lockdown. The value of CP and the rich dividend it can provide in times of crisis has not been sufficiently understood and appreciated by the country’s police leadership, politicians and other opinion makers.

Kerala is the only state that has made it mandatory by incorporating it in the Kerala Police Act.

Q: How should the police reorient itself now? A humane approach is needed to save people — especially the poor, marginalised, daily wage earners, working class — both from Covid-19 and from daily survival problems.

S T Ramesh: It seems we are in for the long haul. The lockdown may end on April 14, but it may take time for normalcy to return. Non-stop duties during the 25-odd days counting from the ‘janata curfew’ day would have totally exhausted and demoralised the police force. But they have to get ready for the next phase when immigrant labour starts returning and there is a sudden burst in activity everywhere.

Police will have to tackle the ‘release syndrome’ of the janata with all its manifestations, after being cooped up for 21 days. All the more reason that the police leadership takes stock now and comes up with briefing and sensitisation sessions through video conferencing, Skype etc to reinforce the need to treat citizens with utmost sensitivity. A slew of immediate measures to boost the sagging morale of the police should be urgently announced by the state government and the police top brass. But these are only short term solutions.

In the long run, the initial institutional and frequent reorientation training should be given emphasis. But training is an extremely weak and neglected area in the police. The Karnataka budget for police training was Rs 40.49 crore out of the police budget of Rs 4,109.76 crore, a measly 0.98%, during 2017-2018.

Training should aim at imparting knowledge and skills but more importantly, it should be  emphasising values and attitudes through resource persons who are role models. Police should shed the tag of a colonial police and transform into one suited for a democracy. This cannot be achieved by the police alone. Massive reforms to our archaic laws, the criminal justice system and police reforms alone will ensure such a transformation.

Q: Given that policing in the circumstances is a hazardous task, should the force be incentivised to carry out its duties? For example, double pay and the like?

S T Ramesh: Double Pay? You must be kidding. That’s like asking for the moon! Police is the whipping boy. Successive governments in our country have followed the policy of ‘Use and throw’ as far as police is concerned.

The cry for better working conditions — as basic as an 8-hour duty, weekly off and public holidays like any other sector — has fallen on deaf ears. Governments offer an occasional sop or lip service but have never sincerely attempted reforms to provide better working conditions.

Police has always worked in hazardous conditions. Butthe lockdown has added another dimension to their work. It has exposed them and their families to the coronavirus infection. I do not see the policeman on the street wearing protective gear. I have no idea whether they have been educated to sanitise themselves when they return home after duty, if they ever manage to get home that is.

Other professions manage to form pressure groups. For example, there is a hue and cry about the scarcity of private protective equipment for healthcare personnel, and rightfully so. Has anyone articulated a similar concern for the 2.5 million policemen toiling across the country and working round the clock, exposing themselves to the virus?

Q: Clearly, the task on hand will have a psychological fall out. Does it warrant regular counselling for the police?

S T Ramesh: Policemen generally work under enormous stress and strain. Regular contact with crime and criminals and negative interface with citizens have a dehumanising effect on them. They have no time to attend to their families or spend quality time with them. Often children of policemen go astray due to lack of parental attention. This adds to their mental health issues.

Like other normal people, policemen also have problems relating to marital issues, chronic illness etc. Police forces in developed countries provide in-house counselling facilities. Counsellors may be hand-picked, trained policemen or external persons. I met a policeman in the US who doubled as a counsellor to the police station staff.

These are challenging times for the police and they can do with plenty of psychiatric help and counselling.

Q: Any other issues that you think should be addressed.

S T Ramesh: The Indian police will be called upon to tackle newer and unforeseen challenges again and again. At present, their duties are so wide ranging — attending SSLC Examination bandobust duties at one end of the spectrum to tackling terrorists, naxals, a variety of law and order situations and enforcing a nation-wide lockdown — each of which demand entirely different skill sets. They have to be versatile and make rapid adjustments every day.  That would make an international cricketer playing all the versions of the game blush!

Many police leaders have made sustained demands for police reforms. But the powers that be do not consider that a priority. It is high time that the demand for police reforms  becomes a people’s movement, and public intellectuals, social workers, artistes, scholars and the common man involve themselves in such a movement as every citizen has a huge stake in an efficient and people-friendly police force.

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