Enforcing Covid-19 rules proves to be a challenge for India's police, not known for their soft touch

Indian police officers with coronavirus headgear, urging people to adopt safety protocols in Hyderabad, on Thursday. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - India's police, not known for their soft touch, are struggling with enforcing Covid-19 restrictions, with reports of excessive use of force emerging across the country.

But they have also made great efforts to creatively get people to observe Covid-19 rules, with songs, dances and skits among the police's arsenal of community-policing moves.

India has recorded more than 26.9 million coronavirus infections and 300,000 deaths since March last year.

As it grapples with a second wave of Covid-19, the federal government has avoided imposing a lockdown, but most state governments have opted to do so on their own.

Local police agencies are tasked not only with enforcing the closure of shops by lockdown deadlines, but also with ensuring social distancing, the wearing of masks and managing vehicle movements under pandemic restrictions.

The local police station is the primary port of access to state services. The police help people who need urgent assistance, monitor people on quarantine or home isolation, provide information and deliver essential supplies to vulnerable groups.

As the lockdown brings officers into greater contact with citizens, there has been friction. In every region under lockdown, it is a common sight to see the police walking around with batons and beating up traders and vendors as the deadline for business closure nears.

In many regions, the police have used punishments ranging from the humiliating to the fatal:

- In Hyderabad, the police inexplicably beat up delivery agents who worked with food delivery apps, even though they are allowed to operate all day.

- In Bangalore, the police performed mock pujas, or prayer rituals, to ridicule those who were not wearing masks, and in other instances, seized vehicles of people violating the curfew.

- In Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, the police made 17 guests in an overcrowded wedding do the frog jump for violating social distancing norms.

- In Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, policemen beat to death 18-year-old vegetable vendor Faisal for not closing shop within the deadline. After residents mounted a protest, the constable was suspended, said the Unnao police, and the superintendent of police in charge is due to be booked for murder.

These reports illustrate the fear some have about the police here.

The National Human Rights Commission, a government body dealing with human rights violations, found that 194 people died in police custody in 2019.

Its report said that police violence is a daily reality in India, with batons and tear gas used for crowd control and beatings regularly rained on people to extract confessions or compliance. Officers are rarely convicted over their actions.

India has 144 police officers for every 100,000 people, well below the United Nations' recommended 222 per 100,000 and lower than most other countries, like Britain with 226 or the Philippines with 174. They also work much longer hours.

The pandemic has presented a new challenge for this understaffed, underfunded and hard-boiled arm of the government. A fifth of Indian police jobs lay vacant.

Police officers giving away roses to motorists during an awareness drive on safety protocols in Hyderabad on May 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"As it is, the police are overworked and now this is another job they're doing for 15 months. Here and there, the police lose their patience and use force. After we saw some bad incidents in the first wave, we circulated advisories to state police departments on using softer methods to enforce Covid-appropriate behaviour," said Mr Prakash Singh, former director-general of the Uttar Pradesh police and chairman of Indian Police Foundation, which works on police reforms.

Of the total police budget, 80 per cent to 90 per cent goes towards staff costs. The smallest chunk of the budget is reserved for community policing and training in citizen outreach, jobs the police have to do amid the pandemic.

"We have learnt that a lockdown is not a normal curfew like during riots or conflict. This is community policing. Under a pandemic, life has to go on, goods vehicles have to be allowed, shops have to open at limited times, but people have to be kept indoors," said Karnataka's Director-General and Inspector-General of Police Praveen Sood, who tweets often requesting the public not to argue with the police.

A senior police official in Uttar Pradesh who did not want to be named said that "people - including politicians - were not wearing masks or following social distancing norms" during village election campaigns last month.

After these polls, more than 1,900 policemen in the state tested positive for coronavirus. In the first wave which peaked last September, around 15,000 police officers in Uttar Pradesh were infected with Covid-19, and 94 died in the past year.

Kerala police Inspector-General Manoj Abraham said: "We are trying to discipline an unconcerned society to follow health protocols with polite persuasion on the one hand and fighting the unseen virus on the other, risking our lives and the lives of family members."

Insp-Gen Sood said: "Every death affects the morale of an already stressed-out department."

After 102 police officers in Karnataka died of Covid-19 in the first wave, the state offered a compensation of three million rupees (S$54,700) to the families of the deceased and "aggressively vaccinated" its 90,000-strong force.

Still, the deadlier second wave has resulted in the deaths of 47 police officers in the state, including a 28-year-old police sub-inspector who was seven months pregnant, Insp-Gen Sood said.

He added that his department has been pushing for creative and friendly methods of encouraging Covid-19-appropriate behaviour.

Individual policemen have gone beyond their call of duty, donating blood, helping healthcare workers and keeping an eye on children orphaned by Covid-19.

The police have also been trying new ways to get people to follow the rules:

- Policemen in Bangalore sang folk-style songs on their megaphone about the benefits of staying home.

- In Kerala, a dance video by six uniformed male and female officers wearing masks went viral.

- In Chennai, constables wore silly coronavirus helmets at checkpoints.

- In Mumbai, they performed skits at markets to promote hand sanitising with the most theatrical actor playing the role of a scary coronavirus character.

- In Delhi and Mumbai, the police transported patients on the verge of death in their control-room vehicles.

- In Lucknow, the police created an oxygen bank, amid reports of a shortage.

Mr Singh said that the perception that the Indian police are by nature callous, brutal and cruel needs a rethink. "We have seen the humane side of the police in the pandemic, and we need to promote and encourage that," he added.

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