Bengaluru: Soon after an attack on her residence in Parpa village in south Chhattisgarh's Bastar district in January 2017, human rights activist and lawyer Bela Bhatia filed a complaint with the local police. She named some of the attackers, and shared photographs she had managed to take of part of the mob and of a partial number plate of one of the vehicles the alleged culprits had travelled in, she claimed. The mob was still present when police arrived on the scene, she told IndiaSpend. Yet, by the end of the year, the police had decided to close the case for lack of evidence and inability to identify the attackers.

Bhatia's case is not an exception. It was one of over 830,000 complaints that were disposed of due to lack of evidence that year, accounting for 15% of the 4.9 million cases that the police had disposed of that year. On average, about 750,000 complaints registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Special and Local Laws (SLLs; specific to a certain subject or state) were similarly disposed of annually in the five years to 2020, successive Crime in India reports compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show. These cases were deemed true, i.e. the incidents occurred, per police records, but were closed due to 'insufficient evidence or untraced or no clue'.

At an all-India level, the proportion of such cases among total complaints has shown an increasing trend since 2016, when the NCRB began sharing data on such cases under the 'True but Insufficient Evidence or Untraced or No Clue' header in its Crime in India reports. Prior to that, these numbers were reported as cases where chargesheets were not filed, but a final report as 'true' was submitted. While such cases accounted for 14% of all cases disposed of in 2016, this had increased to about 17% in 2018, and stayed at about 16% in 2019. While such cases fell to 12% in 2020, nearly one in six cases disposed over the five-year period were for lack of evidence.

The majority of such cases during 2016-20 related to theft (60%) under the broad 'Offences against Property' category in the IPC, or were filed under the Electricity Act (70%) in SLLs, and may not be of serious nature, experts told IndiaSpend. Just over 70% of IPC cases disposed of due to lack of evidence in the past five years also relate to offences against property. Over one in 10 cases closed for lack of evidence, however, are more serious crimes under the broad IPC category 'Offences Affecting the Human Body', which require investigations by well-trained personnel and forensics support, they said.

While police is a state subject, police forces across India face a systemic lack of capacity, forensics support and training, which affect evidence gathering during investigations, former and serving police officials and researchers told IndiaSpend. Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) reports show large vacancies across all ranks, including in specialised investigation departments such as the Crime Branch, and shrinking forensic investigation resources over the past three years. To improve investigations and case disposal by police, stations need forensic resources support, trained staff, and more personnel in a dedicated investigations wing, they said.

Increasing trend of cases closed due to lack of evidence

Bhatia, on her own, investigated the partial number plate captured during the attack, which the police failed to identify, and managed to access the car ownership details from the transport department. "I was able to find basic evidence on my own. It is the job of the police to investigate and not the petitioner," she said. While appealing against the case closure in the chief judicial magistrate's (CJM) court, she had also spotted the mob leader in court when he was appearing in another case, and identified him. Yet, her appeal was dismissed by the CJM in May 2019, and so was her appeal in the District and Sessions Court in September 2021.

In 2017, over 830,000 such cases were disposed of by police, the second highest during the five-year period, behind only 2018, which saw nearly 860,000 cases thus disposed of. By and large, the number and proportion of cases closed for lack of evidence has increased over the last five years; 2020 saw a pronounced dip, but this was mostly owing to fewer cases of theft reported in that year, due to Covid-19 lockdowns and mobility restrictions, rather than improved policing, said experts.

Offences against property (including theft, burglary, motor theft, dacoity, etc.) formed a majority of the cases disposed by police for lack of evidence, with about 60% of IPC cases thus disposed of relating to theft and 71% to the Electricity Act under SLLs, on average.

The second highest proportion of cases--one in nine cases in the five year period, on average--thus disposed of fall under more serious offences against the human body like murder, kidnapping and rape, where forensics are needed to support investigations, said experts.

Since 2016, the NCRB's Crime in India reports include data on cases disposed of by police which were 'true but insufficient evidence or untraced or no clue'. IndiaSpend asked NCRB about changes in methodology since 2016, reasons for police disposal under this category and recommendations for improvements. We will update the article once we receive a response.

"It is up to the police to do a proper investigation [to gather evidence] or not. In many parts of India, we have seen that if the case is against someone influential, it may be conveniently closed," said Bhatia. The inspector in charge of Parpa police station told IndiaSpend that he was unable to share information on the case because he had only taken charge in 2019 and did not immediately have information pertaining to Bhatia's case.

Most states and union territories showed a fall in such disposal of cases in 2020, in line with the nationwide trend of reduced reporting of cases due to the Covid-19 lockdown. The pre-pandemic 2019 Crime in India data show 12 states reported an increase in such closures of IPC cases by police compared to 2018. Another four states showed only a marginal decrease in such closures. For instance, Delhi had reported an increase in closure of cases due to lack of evidence every year between 2016 and 2019, and a fall by 35% in 2020.

There are a combination of issues that may lead to the submission of final reports by police citing insufficiency or lack of evidence, N. Ramachandran, former director general of police, Assam and Meghalaya, and president of the think-tank Indian Police Foundation, told IndiaSpend. "Often, there may be insufficient evidence despite sincere efforts by police. In such cases the police may close the cases saying that the case is true but with insufficient evidence."

Odisha uniquely saw a 244% increase in IPC cases disposed of by police due to lack of evidence in 2020, compared to 38% in 2019. This was largely due to the state's initiative to get more cases registered in the state and even though it shows an abnormal rise, it will normalise subsequently, Sudhansu Sarangi, officer on special duty with the home department in Odisha, told IndiaSpend. "This is one way of informing the Centre that we need more personnel [to deal with more cases]," he added.

One in three positions in investigative ranks vacants

This lack of capacity in human resources is a larger systemic challenge for the police. A study on the actual crime experience of Delhi and Mumbai residents in 2015 by the Delhi-based non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) had noted inadequate budgets, personnel shortages, outdated training and run-down police stations as barriers to effective law enforcement. Five years on, at the start of 2020, vacancy of police personnel nationally was 20%, per BPRD data. One in three officers--tasked with investigation, supervision and planning--are "missing from the police", the 2020 India Justice Report noted, based on 2017 data.

In 2020, nearly one in three personnel from the investigative ranks (inspector, sub-inspector and assistant sub-inspectors) in immediate supervisory positions over field-level personnel (head constables to constables) are still missing; the figure is about one in six for the senior supervisory ranks, ranging from superintendents of police to directors general.

The sanctioned strength of the investigative ranks is about 19% of the overall civil police force, according to BPRD 2020 data. The actual strength of these ranks amounts to about 17% of the civil police force at the start of 2020. Vacancies in the investigative ranks were nearly 30% at the start of 2020, compared to about 18% vacancies in the field-level constabulary.

The situation is not much better in police investigative departments, including the Crime Investigation Department (CID) and the Crime Branch (CB). One in four personnel are missing across all ranks in the CID/CB.

One senior police officer in a supervisory position oversees 17 personnel in the investigative ranks, who in turn oversee 99 field-level personnel, on average, as of January 1, 2020, per BPRD data.

"Our police force is bottom heavy with few officials at the supervisory level to conduct investigations," said Raja Bagga, senior programme officer, CHRI. High pendency in case disposals by the police is linked to the capacity of the police to conduct investigations, he added. Between 2019 and 2020, the pendency of IPC cases by police increased by 8.9 percentage points to 38.2% and by 7 percentage points to 25.1% for SLL cases.

"If there is a shortage of police force in a station, then the timely services a community needs cannot be met, and cases like theft, robbery, snatching and property offences go undetected which police conclude as those without evidence," Sarangi said.

Further, case investigation forms a major part of the workload of the police who on average work 14 hours a day, according to the Status of Policing in India Report (SPIR) 2019 by Common Cause, a Delhi-based governance and public policy advocacy group. Three in four police personnel mentioned heavy workloads as a source of stress which affects their work including investigations.

The problem of high workload is not restricted to police in India. The SPIR 2019 cited a South African Police Service Detectives study which found that detectives with high caseloads spend the least amount of time on "real detective work, such as evidence collection and analysis". In 2020, one in five Indian police personnel (21%) reported stress due to heavy workload, according to SPIR 2020.

We need larger stations with more strength in investigative units, as is the case in some of the Western countries, said Sarangi. If we can invest in law enforcement and create capacity, we can improve our economy and meet the community's expectations of service from the police better, he added.

Bhatia spoke of the need to create an investigation wing separate from the law and order wing, citing her own experience to explain why. She claimed that the police had come to her residence when the mob was still present, which made them both witnesses and investigators. Bagga also called for the Supreme Court's 2006 directive that investigation and law-and-order functions be separated.

Investigative infrastructure and training gaps

Besides the shortfall in human resources, investigations infrastructure such as forensic laboratories also fall short. Modern, state-of-the-art forensic support is a must for efficient crime investigation and prosecution, and forensic science labs (FSLs) and mobile forensic units are crucial for gathering evidence for investigation, experts said. Well-equipped mobile forensics units/vans have facilities to collect DNA samples and undertake on-the-spot tests, for instance. FSLs provide support for analysis of ballistics, fingerprinting, DNA and other evidence. With police stations lacking equipment, and trained staff missing at various levels of evidence gathering and analysis, investigation gets delayed and genuine cases get closed unresolved, experts said.

For example, at the FSL lab in Agra, the lack of fuming hoods, to be worn when chemicals harmful to humans are being used, were polluting labs, the 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General's performance audit report of Uttar Pradesh's forensic laboratories had found. Further, FSL Lucknow had disclosed that only one genetic analyser--used for final parental determination at the end of DNA testing--was available. This "resulted in pendency of 4,113 samples (as of March 2016) in DNA and serology lab". Various kinds of investigation kits, such as clue handling tools, clue analysis tools, spray marking paint, digital distance measuring device, laser light pen and UV light, were not provided at the police station level, it added.

As of 2020, India had 32 FSLs, 80 regional laboratories and 418 mobile forensic units, per BPRD data. This is more than a quarter less than the country's forensic science infrastructure in 2018.

"In the forensic science infrastructure, the situation is particularly worrisome where state after state is guilty of neglecting this crucial area of investigation," noted Common Cause's SPIR 2018.

BPRD data show regional imbalances in forensics infrastructure. For instance, Gujarat, with a population of 68 million in late 2019, had 33 mobile forensic units at the start of 2020; Bihar, with nearly twice Gujarat's population, had two. Andhra Pradesh, with 52 million people, had 13 mobile forensic units; Odisha, with 45 million, had 36. Uttar Pradesh with 75 districts had 75 mobile units; Karnataka with 30 districts had 15.

The inadequate number of FSLs is a problem, and caseload on these labs will depend on their location, distance to the location of a crime, and availability of well-trained personnel, Bagga said. "Inadequate FSLs also increase the possibility of mishandling of evidence. This causes delays and impacts the quality of evidence in an investigation."

The problem is not limited to physical resource availability, Vipul Mudgal, director and chief executive of Common Cause, said, "I am not doubting that there are issues of capacity but I feel that investigations are not done professionally even within the limitations of time and resources."

"Because of infirmities in the skills of field officers, the evidence is either not collected properly or not packed properly resulting in loss of its evidentiary value," said a BPRD 2013 compendium of National Police Mission projects. "It is, therefore, pertinent that forensic investigations are not left to the field officers but officers with background of forensic sciences are made available in the Police," it added. Mobile units should be equipped with communications links to parent forensic labs for digital transfer of data, it noted.

The compendium also made a case for utilising investigation support units at police stations like mobile forensic units, dog squads, etc, through which "a large number of cases presently returned as 'Case true no clue' can be successfully solved".

SPIR 2018's analysis of 2009-2016 data found that almost 80% of positions in forensic labs were vacant in Bihar and 88% of lab assistants' positions were vacant in West Bengal. But in Uttar Pradesh, "where the forensic infrastructure appears to be better," nearly 70% of positions were vacant, indicating that infrastructure and trained staff to assist investigations were a problem.

Improvements, however, have been made compared to earlier years when forensics results would take a while, according to Ramachandran. More cases are resolved through digital evidence because all types of crimes these days tend to leave a digital footprint, he said.

Earlier, it would take years to get the results from a forensic lab as all states did not have labs and qualified staff, but now this has improved as new recruits in police and forensics are graduates and tech savvy, said Ramachandran. "But to make rapid changes, these improvements need to be at scale and not be incremental."

Trust deficit

Although the numbers of cases closed annually for lack of evidence are high, even these are underestimates because people are reluctant to go to a police station, said Bagga of CHRI. "Further, non-registration of reported complaints remains a serious concern, particularly for sexual offences."

The CHRI study from 2015 said a "wide disparity" exists between the number of crimes experienced and reported to the police, because police refuse to register complaints. Theft was the most commonly experienced crime, followed by assault and sexual harassment, and those who did not report crimes "did not want to be caught up in bureaucracy". The survey indicated a "significant proportion of unaddressed and unresolved crime in each city, signalling worrying levels of insecurity among the public, particularly women". Not all crimes that are reported are reflected in Crime in India data either, said the study.

Filing of false cases is another reason why cases are closed for lack of evidence, said Ramachandran. Sometimes, false cases are registered with the sole intention of harassing people. Sometimes, "unscrupulous police officers have been complicit in registration of false cases, often in cahoots with political masters with the intention of settling scores with political opponents", Ramachandran said. In these cases, it becomes difficult to gather lawful evidence and finally such cases are closed for want of sufficient evidence, he noted.

Presenting the police perspective, SPIR 2019 noted that seven in 10 police personnel said witnesses were unwilling to cooperate and nearly 2 in 3 (58%) said victims were unwilling to cooperate. This indicated "a serious lacuna in the system," said Mudgal, "If you are privileged and rich, the investigation can be gamed in various ways to be hastened or delayed as per your convenience."

Overall, however, the failure of cases may not be due to bad law, but due to poor investigation, improper evidence gathering or even biased investigation, Ramachandran said.

Expert recommendations

  • Modern forensic infrastructure like labs and mobile units at state, district and police stations
  • More sanctioned strength at the investigating ranks (ASI to Inspector) for conducting investigations
  • Training of forensics professionals and filling of vacancies in various state forensic laboratories
  • Separation of investigation functions from law and order functions, per 2006 Prakash Singh Supreme Court judgment

Editing by Lesley Esteves.

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