Lessons of a Serial Killing

We need to start searching for workable reforms to end the apartheid-like justice system

There is much speculation in the international press about whether India can sustain its stunning economic growth given its paucity of roads, schools and power. But besides the physical infrastructure crunch, there is another-even more basic-obstacle to India’s economic modernization: the justice crunch.

Nothing illustrates this better than the Nithari serial killing case. For three years, the police casually stood by as 30 children from this slum in Noida were kidnapped, sexually abused, murdered and disposed of in body bags in a sewer behind Moninder Singh Pandher’s posh house. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which took over the botched investigation from the Noida police, has so far charged only Pandher’s servant, Surinder Koli, with kidnapping, rape and murder. Pandher has received barely a rap on the knuckles from the investigating agency-eliciting howls of protest from the victims’ parents. Who can blame them? Pandher might well be innocent of the more serious crimes; but if he weren’t, could they have any confidence that India’s justice system would hold him accountable?

Indeed, even as the Noida police repeatedly dismissed their pleas to do something about their missing children, it was prompt in finding the kidnapped son of an Adobe executive last November. Nor is this example of India’s two-tier justice an isolated one. Even as basic protections are withheld from the poor and powerless, most states maintain, at taxpayers’ expense, lavish security entourages as status symbols for executives, athletes, movie stars and other officially-deemed VIPs. The reason why the Indian police can get away with such a lopsided distribution of resources, where the most vulnerable get the least protection, is that Indian society doesn’t just tolerate this, but expects it. Despite its rapid economic growth, India remains a highly stratified society where the prejudices of status and wealth pervade every facet of life.

Consider the institution of domestic servants: Far from viewing it as an unfortunate consequence of India’s labour surplus, this institution is a source of pride for most Indians. That they can hire someone to clean their toilets is seen as evidence of the superiority of the Indian way of life to the western. What’s more, the worldview of gentried Indians equates lack of station with a lack of character. Witness the suspicion with which servants are regarded.

This mentality makes it tough for privileged Indians to empathize with the plight of those on the other side of the social divide-and, conversely, take seriously the possibility of depravity in those on their side. Indeed, much as Indians were shocked by the gruesome nature of the Nithari killings, they were even more shocked that one of the alleged perpetrators was a pedigreed businessman, a St. Stephen’s graduate, as if social respectability and moral depravity are mutually exclusive. But, a rule of law that protects the life and property of all is not just a matter of basic justice, but also of creating the moral infrastructure necessary for India’s economic revival. In a system that offers only selective justice, no one, including outside investors, can be sure they will always be among the selected. And, the disenfranchised who can’t get justice will become willing recruits for the anti-liberalization Left-the only political force that takes their plight seriously. None of this is conducive to political stability-a fundamental prerequisite for economic growth.

In recent years, the government has turned to the private sector to make up for its failure in maintaining the country’s physical infrastructure. The new, glittering metro in New Delhi is an entirely private undertaking. Private companies are building airports and providing telecommunication services. And, as James Tooley, an England-based education expert, has documented, the private market is offering low-cost, quality alternatives to abysmal state-run schools even in India’s slums.

But justice can’t be privatized. This is one government failure for which there is no obvious alternative but to reform the system from the inside. One idea that has worked in Japan and Australia, notes Arvind Verma, a former Indian police officer who now heads Indiana University’s India Studies programme, involves making police departments more accountable to local communities-as opposed to the civil bureaucracy. India inherited its system of bureaucratic accountability from the British, who invented it to shield the rulers from the ruled-not protect the ruled. Ending it will require the creation of citizens’ commissions to oversee the police in every municipality.

The commissions could consist of members from the Opposition party, neighbourhood association leaders, NGOs, and retired judges. Residents would be able to take complaints against local police directly to commissions empowered to take disciplinary action, including firing officers, withholding funds and bringing criminal charges for corruption or negligence. Maybe this will work-maybe it won’t. But India needs to start searching for workable reforms to end its apartheid-like justice system and make it more responsive to all citizens.