Why crime data do not always add up to the complete picture -Deeptiman Tiwary

-The Indian Express

Low crime rate numbers often don’t mean citizens are safer, and ‘rape capital’ and ‘crime capital’ could both be unfair assessments. In reports such as the one published by the National Crime Records Bureau last week, the quality of data is important, as is its placement in the right context.

New Delhi: “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Sherlock Holmes, a man who knew a thing or two about crime and investigations, once told Dr Watson (A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891). What is equally important though is the quality of data, and its placement in the right context.

Data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) last week provoked headlines that declared Delhi as India’s “rape capital” and Kerala as its “crime capital”. Both did, indeed, record very high crime rates (numbers of crime incidents per 1 lakh population) in 2016. But do these data mean particularly bad law and order in Delhi and Kerala?

International data on crime show that countries with the best systems of law and order also have high crime rates, while countries with dysfunctional governments mostly show low crime rates. According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, averaged over a few recent years, Sweden reported the highest rate (6,456 per 1 lakh people) of seven serious crimes, followed by Denmark (6,041) and the Netherlands (5,523). In contrast, the lowest rates of these crimes were seen in the most lawless countries: Somalia (1.5 per 1 lakh people), Iraq (2) and Libya (2.9). For India, the number was a mere 87.

Registering crime

Data suggest Delhi’s rape graph began rising fast after the horrific December 2012 bus gangrape. With police under pressure to act, and with more people coming forward to report such offences, the following year saw Delhi record a 350% increase in incidents of rape. That did not mean Delhi had suddenly become more unsafe — it was just that earlier, cases were not being registered and were not reflecting in data. Now, “by registering cases, we made the city safer, even though it earned us a bad name”, said a senior Delhi Police officer.

The civil society response to crime data often dictates the government response. ‘Bad’ data trigger an outcry and attract political reprimands for officers, who, therefore, try to keep numbers as low as possible. Refusing to file First Information Reports (FIRs) is allegedly one way of doing this.

Uttar Pradesh — which, NCRB data show, has a suspiciously low crime rate — has been notorious on this count. Former DGP Prakash Singh reported police officers getting orders from various regimes to ensure crime figures are brought down by 50%-70% — a target which, in most cases, is achieved by not registering FIRs. For its re-election campaign in 2007, the Samajwadi Party used such data to coin the slogan, “UP mein hai dum, kyunki jurm yahan hai kum”. Incredulous voters gave Mayawati’s BSP victory by a landslide.

Different definitions

Advocates of police reforms have pushed for large-scale surveys by agencies such as the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) to get the real sense of crime that exists among people. Developed countries have attempted to bring data from such crime victimisation surveys on a par with registered crime data. But the first problem is with the data itself. Data collection in India is generally so poor that it fails to reflect even things that the authorities acknowledge.

For example, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal have for years reported zero farmer suicides, extremely odd for states where the majority of the population is dependent on agriculture. The Union Home Ministry defines “farmer suicide” as self-annihilation of any person whose profession is farming. The NCRB has, since 2014, categorised farmer suicide data into causes such as family problems, crop failure or indebtedness, but the overall figure is still tabulated according to this basic definition.

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The Indian Express, 6 December, 2017, http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/ncrb-crime-records-why-crime-data-do-not-always-add-up-to-the-complete-picture-4969741/

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