Trust of the Republic survey: little faith in government

Police & parliament least trusted institutions. All government institutions end up at bottom of table

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BV Rao | February 13, 2013




tabel-1.jpgAnita Danielle is a young social worker. She receives calls on 181, the new emergency helpline set up by the Delhi government for women in distress. The service was launched on December 31 in the aftermath of the national outrage against the December 16 gangrape and subsequent death of a young girl.

Anita operates one of the three shifts of the 24x7 helpline. There are three operators per shift. Each operator receives about 130 to 150 calls every day, in all between 1,200 and 1,500 calls daily.

The incessant ringing of the phones suggests that the helpline is an instant hit with women of Delhi and has given the Sheila Dikshit government something to crow about. But it is a sad reflection on the Delhi police because it suggests that the wedge between the Delhi police and the citizens is so deep and wide that they need the comfort of an intermediary to talk to each other. A more realistic and less charitable interpretation is that the Delhi police now needs to be kept at an arm’s length from the citizens it is supposed to protect.

The helpline does just that. It receives the distress calls, advises the callers to remain calm and passes on the information to the police for urgent action thereby delaying the people-police interaction. Help is reached, mind you, not by the Delhi government but by the Delhi police. But their image is so low and the women of Delhi are so completely lacking in trust in the Delhi police that a layer of separation has to be created. No wonder the service has been located in the Delhi government secretariat, not in the Delhi police headquarters a stone’s throw away.

This lack of trust in the police comes through clearly in what the callers tell the 181 operators. “One woman told me that she was afraid of the police and asked me if I could complain on her behalf against her abusive husband. I think women of Delhi now feel empowered because there is someone to listen to them,” says Anita.

Therefore, each call is received with a warm “mukhyamantri mahila sahyog sewa mein aapka swagat hai” (welcome to the chief minister’s women’s helpline). Not a word about Delhi police, providing a further layer of separation between the police and the people. The subtext is hard to miss: you can trust this helpline because the police is not involved!

Delhi has been through excruciating times after the gangrape. A combination of bad policing, bad governance and a bankruptcy of political leadership made the Delhi police the easy target of public hatred. So there is an immediate context to the extreme lack of trust in Delhi police as illustrated by the setting up of the 181 helpline and locating it outside the domain of the Delhi police. (There is, of course, the matter of the Delhi government trying to win brownie points in an election year at the expense of the Delhi police.)

But the fear of the police and the lack of trust in it is not a local, limited problem of Delhi, nor is it episodic, incidental or temporary. It’s a countrywide phenomenon that has come to stay. Over the decades, police has come to represent the worst of the establishment because of its corruption, inefficiency, coziness with politicians, abuse of power and a complete lack of sensitivity.

Today khaki invokes all the negative emotions—fear, lack of trust and even a certain amount of terror—in the average citizen making it the most alienated of public institutions in the country. This is what is exactly reflected in an extended and extensive national survey conducted by CVoter for Governance Now, specially compiled for this Republic Day special issue.

Of the 17 institutions surveyed for their trust quotient with the citizens, police ended up at the bottom of the heap, marking them the least trusted public institution of the country. Out of every 100 respondents only 19 said they had a lot of trust (A) in the police, 40 said they had some trust (B) and 39 said they had no trust at all (C) in the police. That gave the police a ‘net’ trust score (D) of just 20 (A + B – C = D). (see table)

tabel-2.jpg

That’s a depressingly low score any which way you look at it. Firstly, it suggests that only one in five persons trusts the police. Secondly, that for every one person who fully trusts the police (A=19) more than double the number, that is, two-plus persons have no trust at all (C=39). Lastly, the police’s net trust score of 20 is about two-and-a-half times—or 250%—less than its nearest low-scoring institution, parliament. At a net trust score of just 50 percent, our parliament shares space at the bottom of the trust ladder with police. Thirty-three percent respondents said they had full table-3.jpgtrust in parliament, 39 percent had some trust and 22 percent said they had no trust at all in parliament giving it a net trust score of just 50 percent. That is way better than the police but if you consider that parliament is the temple of our democracy, the fact that only one in two persons trusts it is a matter of concern and that nearly one in four persons does not trust it at all is scary for our democracy.

That brings us to the real problem, well articulated by VC Goel, former DGP of Uttar Pradesh, in an accompanying article: “The quality of democracy in our country is also responsible for the all-round decay (in policing)... Ours is a cantankerous democracy in which the political parties carry their bitterness beyond elections. The result is that even the police officers get divided into camps. I am really pained to see a division of the policemen on the lines of political parties and castes... I have served under all political dispensations. And I can say with all sincerity that political will is a prerequisite for any improvement in the working of the police. But let us seriously ask: who is interested in reforming the police?”

Who indeed? Definitely not the political establishment which has itself scripted the degradation of all institutions. It cannot be expected to suffer a sudden change of heart to restore trust in institutions. The bunching of police and parliament at the bottom of the trust index reflects in one go the mood of national despondency in the last few years. The unbridled corruption in high places, the brazenness of the corrupt and the silent acquiescence of the honest, the opaqueness of our bureaucracy, the loot of our natural resources by crony capitalists, the stalling of anti-corruption laws by parliament, the extremely closed nature of our political parties, the huge popular movements against corruption and crime and the inexplicable, repeated thrashing up of peaceful protesters by an insensitive state, have all created an environment of extreme distrust in our institutions of democracy.

If things are so bad and we are still holding out as a nation, there must be some institutions that people trust as well, that are keeping us invested in the idea of India. What are these institutions? It was an urge to find answers to this question that prompted us to launch this trust survey. CVoter, a known name in the area of psephology and surveys collected the data over three years (2010, 2011 and 2012) of field research. The survey covered 97,067 respondents who were asked to indicate whether they had A) full trust in an institution, B) some trust in it, or C) no trust in it and arrived at a net trust score D (as explained earlier). In weekly interviews with respondents over these three years, CVoter asked them to rate 17 institutions, both inside government and outside, that evoke their trust or otherwise. (Methodology and detailed findings on next page.)

The obvious headlines of the survey are the lack of trust in our police and parliament (as discussed above) and the emergence of our defence forces, unsurprisingly, as the most trusted institution (see ‘one horse race’, on page 8). But the bigger import of this survey is this: people just have no trust in any institution of governance directly related to our elected representatives or under the control of our governments. Thus out of the 17 institutions covered under the survey, not one institution directly in the hands of politicians (and the bureaucracy) makes it to the top ten. In fact, all six government institutions are bunched at the end, making up ranks 12 to 17!

Rank numbers 1 to 11 belong to institutions that are independent of the government (for example, social organisations or NGOs, election commission and courts) or are at an arm’s length from it (such as the armed forces). Even the media, which has actually had a very patchy record of serving the public good in the last decade, ranks a high third as do private educational institutes though most of them are nothing more than teaching shops. It is a mark of how low the stock of governments and government institutions is that government schools score the highest rank (12) in the public institutions space. It suggests a dangerous disconnect between governments and the people because of poor governance. 

This survey, we do acknowledge, is not comprehensive. It could have covered more key institutions such as the CBI, CVC, CAG, our bureaucracy and political parties, the last of which, we suspect, would have competed strongly with the police for the last spot. We hope to straighten it out next year and each year after that.

Surveys don’t provide solutions. They just show us the direction. It is clear from this survey that there is a deep level of distrust in institutions of governance. All the good news seems to be coming out of institutions untouched by governments or political leaders. As the short representative essays—on our defence forces, on non-governmental organisations, on the election commission, on the judiciary, on India’s parliament and police —show, the reasons why some institutions evoke our trust and some don’t are widely known.

What this survey shows unambiguously is where we should begin the reforms, if we want to reform.

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