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Bibek Debroy: Policing the railways

The GRP is neglected, the RPF has no powers. The two should be merged if the Indian Railways wants an effective railway police force

Bibek Debroy 

Bibek Debroy

I was at an ATM the other day. In the adjacent parking lot, I noticed a thief run off with a woman's purse. I requested the security guard, "Chase that man and arrest him." The guard shrugged and said he couldn't because he wasn't a policeman.

This is a story I concocted to grab your attention. However, few people outside legal circles know that in many common law jurisdictions, there are provisions for citizens to arrest individuals. That's true of our Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) too. Section 43(1) states, "Any private person may arrest or cause to be arrested by any person who in his presence commits a non-bailable and cognisable offence, or any proclaimed offender, and, without unnecessary delay, shall make over or cause to be made over any person so arrested to a police officer, or, in the absence of a police officer, take such a person or cause him to be taken into custody to the nearest police station."

Contrary to what some people think, RPF doesn't stand for Railway Police Force - it is the Railway Protection Force. There is a railway police force too - it is the Government Railway Police (GRP). It is part of the state police. Law and order and policing on railways, including on trains, is the responsibility of the GRP.

The RPF was never meant to be a police force, not in the strict sense. A force doesn't become 'police' unless it is 'enrolled' under the Police Act (1861). The RPF isn't that, even if it is headed by someone from the Indian Police Service and even though it is an 'armed force' of the Union.

The history of the RPF and the evolution of police functions on railways depend on the timeline, the vintage. What was true of 1861 wasn't true of 1921 (when a committee was set up). To state it simply, chowkidars employed in private railways metamorphosed into a watch and ward system. In 1953, this watch and ward system became the Railway Security Force, with virtually no police powers. In 1955, this force got some teeth because of the Railway Stores (Unlawful Possession) Act, but only if you were found to be in unlawful possession of railway property. Finally, in 1957, we got the RPF, but it could only investigate and prosecute for unlawful possession of railway property and also had related powers of search and arrest. There is a Railways Act of 1989, which has an entire chapter on offences against the Indian Railways (IR). Some are more serious offences than the others. Section 179(1) says, "If any person commits any offence mentioned in sections… (more serious offences), he may be arrested without warrant or other written authority by any railway servant or police officer not below the rank of a head constable."

First, under the CrPC, anyone has the right to perform the arrest of a citizen - nothing special about the RPF. Second, there is nothing special about the RPF for Section 179(1) of the Railways Act either. Under this, a "railway servant means any person employed by the central government or by a railway administration in connection with the service of a railway". Therefore, if the IR decides that a travelling ticket examiner should have such rights, the Railways Act authorises the IR to do this. Notice that Section 179 gives powers to arrest for cognisable offences, while Section 180 does that for non-cognisable offences. Hence, non-RPF staff (engineers, supervisors) also have the power to lodge FIRs with the GRP. Third, law and order is a state subject. States decide who possesses the powers of criminal investigation (and even lodging FIRs), regardless of amendments to the Railways Act and the RPF Act granting greater powers to the RPF. The present status quo, with multiplicity across the RPF, GRP and state (district) police, is unsatisfactory and I counted 19 committees that have recommended unification.

Scrap the RPF. Scrap the GRP. Merge the two. Recommendations across committees are assorted. The IR wants the RPF and even to increase its strength from the present 75,000. (The GRP strength is 37,500.) State governments won't grant the RPF more powers. We are in a bind. For the GRP, the IR contributes 50 per cent of the cost, the rest is borne by the state governments. As long as we are in the bind, the GRP remains the real 'police'. Hence, as an instance, when a new line is constructed, one needs to budget for the additional GRP (provide for 50 per cent) and do assorted stuff such as provide for their housing. With a focus on the RPF, the IR won't do that. The GRP is neglected and the RPF has no powers. Today, among mail/express trains, around 1,300 are escorted by the RPF and around 2,200 by the GRP. As a passenger, before you expect the man with the gun on the train to do something against an offence, find out whether he is with the RPF or the GRP. By the way, on an average, it costs Rs 24 per train km to get trains protected by the RPF. For the Western Zone, the figure is as high as Rs 62. One reason for this high figure is that RPF personnel are not exclusively stationed on trains, platforms, yards and production units. Without success, I have tried to find out how many of the 75,000 are in core railway areas and how many have non-core duties. This break-up may be the reason why the RPF is favoured by the IR.

The writer is a member of the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog. The views are personal

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First Published: Tue, November 10 2015. 21:44 IST