V. Balakrishnan IPS, popularly known as ‘Balky’, is one of Chennai city’s top cops. A student of Mass Communication, he understands the power of communication and the role of media thoroughly and uses the might of social media to keep the people appraised of what goes on in his precinct. Women’s safety is a subject close to his heart and he sat down for a chat with Citizen Matters one afternoon, discussing various aspects of it.
Q. Is the city becoming more unsafe for women?
Actually, if you look at the statistics, there is no actual increase in crime against women, compared to previous years. But, maybe, the nature of crimes, the publicity in media, public attention and focus on some of the crimes in recent times have given the image that crimes against women are on the rise. But statistically, it is not so.
When I speak about statistics, there is another angle also. With regard to crime against women, statistics may not give the correct picture. Reporting of crime against women is actually very poor. Of course, there has been an improvement in this, a lot of women are now coming out and reporting crime [committed against them].
Statistically speaking, even if there is a rise in the number of crimes, we should not, unnecessarily, give too much importance to that because it will deter the reporting of crime in the long run. When you criticise too much, when you focus too much on the statistics, there may be a tendency among the law enforcement agencies to dismiss the individual instances of crime.
As of now, a free registration of crime against women is happening. This means that all cases reported by women are getting registered and entered into the statistical records. So, it is an encouraging trend. So, statistics of course is an indicator but we should not give too much importance to that because it may mislead [the public].
What I essentially say is that there is no obvious increase in crime against women but reporting has improved and more and more people are coming out to report their grievances. That is the main thing.
Q. So, do you think that social media is helping more women to come forward?
Definitely, because more and more people are connected through social media – in fact, the penetration of social media among the youth, especially, even in the rural areas is quite high.
Q. Have you seen this, sir, in the rural areas also?
Yes, yes. Before moving to Chennai, I was in Madurai and before that, in Tiruppur, Tiruvannamalai… I have seen all the rural areas. The penetration of social media is very high. More and more people are getting hooked to social media. They get to read about what is happening around them. So, they get encouraged to come out openly and come to the police station. They have various other mediums to send their grievances too – email, or even Whatsapp. That has encouraged the people, especially women, to report more and more.
Q. Apart from social media channels, is there a police helpline for women?
Yes, there is. There is the regular number – 100. Any grievance can be communicated by calling 100. Your call gets connected to the control room, from where, by wireless or by other means, the grievance is communicated to the respective jurisdictional police station; there, it gets attended to immediately. This is the common redressal mechanism available in the police.
In addition to that, we have 1091, which is a women’s helplines. Anyone can call these numbers and report their grievances, which will get redressed.
Q. What is the response time, when someone calls 1091? How quickly does a call get looked into?
In the city, the places are not very far off. For example, let’s take Mylapore (Mr Balakrishnan’s own area) – any area in Mylapore can be reached in 10 minutes maximum. Each police station in the city has a minimum of two patrol vehicles and three sets of beat officers. So, anywhere in the jurisdiction, the police can reach the place in 10 minutes. Maybe in the outskirts, it will take a bit longer, but by and large, the police can reach within 10-15 minutes from the time the information was given.
Q. So, any woman’s complaints will be taken care of straightaway, without any delays or queuing?
Definitely. There are many hierarchical layers which take care of the grievances at different levels. For example, if a woman doesn’t get her grievance redressed in a police station, the next option available is to approach the Assistant Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Police etc. There are so many layers of mechanism to take care of the complaints.
Q. Do you think publicising these would help more women to come forward? If the public could be made aware of these procedures, if they could attach a face to the police, would it help?
100%. In fact, I have done it in other districts when I worked there. Here, it is in the final stages [of being rolled out]. There are simple grievance redressal mechanisms, specially for crime against women. My understanding is that many women still hesitate to report the crime. For example, take the case of ‘eve-teasing’. What happens is that these girls, especially teenagers, hesitate to report to the police. In fact, they hesitate to talk about it even to their parents because most of the parents, with some exceptions, immediately respond: “You should be careful. You might have done something that might have brought this on”. This victim blaming happens right away. So, fearing that, many girls don’t dare to report the crime.
To overcome this barrier, based on this understanding and my experience, my interactions with the public, I am going to set up a simple complaint box in public spots, such as in schools where the girls study, colleges, bus stands — in all the seven police stations in the Mylapore area, I am going to fix these complaint boxes in more than 50 places. This will be done in 10-15 days.
Q Is this being piloted in Mylapore?
B: I am doing it in Mylapore because I am the DC of the area. If it is successful, I’d recommend it to the Commissioner to roll it throughout the city. I am doing another study on the Marina Beach. In Mylapore, there are a some places where a large number of people gather – the temples and the beach, for example.
Marina Beach has another peculiar problem – 99% of the people there come from out of Chennai. Even if they are teased or find themselves in any unpleasant situation, they may not want to report to the police unless it is very serious. They may fear that if they report a crime, they may be called for an enquiry, they cannot come from afar etc.
What I’m doing [to combat this] is that I am engaging students from the University of Madras Criminology Studies to do a survey on the beach, to find out what kind of inconveniences, unpleasant situations or problems are being faced by women exclusively. Only when a crime gets reported, we, the police come to know about it. But it doesn’t mean that, [if we don’t,] nothing is happening. To reduce the gap between the reality and reported crimes, we are using these students, girl students only, to find out what kind of problems are faced by the women visiting the beach.
Q. How do you designate some police stations as all women police stations? Is this based on statistics or…?
All women police stations are basically there in each range – a range is an area headed by an Assistant Commissioner. For every 2-3 [regular] police stations in the city, there is an all-women police station. In the districts, each one is divided into 5-6 sub-divisions. Each sub-division will have an all-women police station. It [the number of all-women police stations] is not based on the statistics or the number of crimes reported in the previous year but as a standard. A ‘regular’ police station is a law & order police station and Crime [branch] is attached to that; for every three law & order police stations, there is an all-women police station.
Q. Do women even patrol at night? For example, the running community takes to the streets early in the morning, at 4.00 – 4.30 AM and constantly report of harassment at the hands of groups of men. Areas like the TTK Road flyover, Besant Nagar beach etc are hotspots for sexual harassment. And this happens at a time when you think there will not be a policewoman to report the crime to. Is there any way to solve this issue?
B: Absolutely. Regular patrolling is always there, 24×7. Usually male officers are there, but sometimes we have female police also. But when there is an event, such as a marathon, at that time we deploy policewomen also. But for regular walking, as of now, we only have regular patrolling. But your idea is good, when a woman police officer is there, you may feel more comfortable, more confident to report something like this. I will make a note of this and … [he wrote this down in his notebook to follow up on]
Q. Does the TN police have an app? There was an app called Safetipin – if you were running or walking through an area and felt it was unsafe, you could drop a pin there [on the map of the app] and this would get picked up via the GPS and connected with the police. But we don’t know if it went past the pilot stage…
The government is in the process of developing one, there is a project going on but the details are not available yet for public.
Q. Coming to patterns, there’s a lot of shift work in the IT sector, call centres and so on, where women are working and returning home at late hours. With the increase in crime against them, these women are that much more vulnerable. What advice would you give to such women?
Periodically, we conduct meetings at the Commissioner’s office for the employers of women, to give a set of instructions about women’s safety in their organisations. Simple things like, during the night shift, the companies should have a pick up and drop off system – this is compulsory. The vehicles which are used to pick them up and drop them off, their details should be made available to the company. Simple mechanisms like this are available. Of course, some organisations have got exclusive apps for their employees but as we said, the government one is under development.
Q. What advice would you give a woman caught in a bad situation? How can she extricate or protect herself?
It is better to take all the precautions – avail the services of the pick up & drop vehicle. If, even after taking all the precautions, somebody lands in a tough situation, calling 100 is one major option. There are several lines available in the Control Room and your call will get connected immediately. That will get you immediate assistance.
Other technology-based solutions are in the process of being developed, such as a simple system like fast dialling. In Chennai city, a small scheme was set up to safeguard the senior citizens. So, we compiled a list of senior citizens living alone and our beat officers from each police station went to their houses, programmed the local police station number as their Speed Dial option 1. When in danger, they could immediately dial the number. The senior citizens were taught how to operate that, how to use it in an emergency.
A simple thing like a speed dial option can be useful. But a comprehensive technology-based application, which can connect to the police immediately is in the process of being developed.
Q. In the meantime, would you recommend self-defence training and tips for women, to protect themselves better?
Self-defence is very important for everyone, male or female, it is definitely required. For women, it will be definitely helpful if they, unexpectedly, get into such kind of (intimidating) situations. I always recommend that. In fact, in 2013, on International Women’s Day, I was in Madurai. On that occasion, we introduced a few methods in our fight against crime against women. For example, we issued pepper spray to the college students, we issued keychains with the SHO’s number, simple things like that.
Any measure which can immediately protect women is always to be recommended. Self-defence, of course, is an important thing, which not only empowers a woman but also brings confidence to their minds. So, in these aspects, self-defence will definitely be helpful. Of course, there are limitations, but I would definitely recommend that everybody learns self-defence.
Q. When we spoke to different self-defence schools, we learnt that one of them teaches Krav Maga to our elite commando units. Do you think it helps our police too, knowing self-defence techniques?
Our commandos are taught self-defence, unarmed combat and other defence tactics. But, definitely, for other police personnel also, learning self-defence is helpful. Not just to protect themselves while on duty, but also to protect women in distress. Unless we know how to safeguard ourselves, we cannot confidently help others in distress.
Q. What about the arrival of cab companies like Uber and Ola and the influx of migrants, young men, from outside the city to work here, thanks to such job opportunities? The women that rely on these cabs to get home safe at late hours, are they much more vulnerable?
B: To put it in the right perspective, with increased education, increased economic activity, more and more women are getting employment opportunities and are coming out to work during night hours also. So, naturally, there is a demand for [cab] drivers in the city. Unequal employment opportunities between the city and the rural areas will definitely force youngsters to migrate to the urban areas. So, whoever comes to the city, whoever employs them, must collect all their details for future reference.
What we advise the cab owners is to collect complete details and verify their antecedents through the police, which has been made compulsory. All the cab-owners are sending the particulars of their drivers to get their background and precedence checked, it is mandatory.
Q. Any other initiatives that are underway?
B: Periodically, at various officers’ level, sensitisation programmes are conducted, even for the cab drivers. In fact, once a week, each police station conducts a meet with all the cab drivers, to cover all the cab operators in their jurisdiction. So basically, sensitising them will help them be more aware of the issues relating to women. In fact, sensitisation also helps drivers understand the working women’s problems and react in case of any requirement.
Q. Do you feel there is a need to sensitise the constable, at the lowest level of a police station who will be directed to help a lady?
B: Absolutely! Sensitisation programmes for the constables with regard to the grievances of women, how to deal with women-related issues is periodically conducted. The behavioural change may not happen in a single day. It is a continuous process. Continuous training, continuous sensitisation are definitely required. Considering the tight schedule in which our constables are working, whenever the time is available, such programmes are conducted. Now, since in each police station we have the women police and each range has an all-women police station, 99.9% of the grievances related to women are redressed by women police personnel exclusively.
Q. What challenges do the police face, while ensuring the safety of the public?
Challenges are part of the police way of life! We conduct periodical meetings and programmes, telling our policemen and women about the dangers – challenges may be in the nature of physical threat, or even in dealing with petitioners of different categories, for example those with mental health issues. For example, there are two or three petitioners who regularly visit this station and their grievances are more psychiatry-related than real law & order issues. In such cases, we organise counselling and if that doesn’t work, we send them off [to a psychiatric facility]. So the challenges are multi-fold and the officers are trained, sensitised periodically.
Q. Do you have any message for the women of Chennai, something to reassure them that things are being taken care of at the topmost level, that they needn’t fear for their safety?
I can tell the women with 100% assurance that police forces are aware of the issues related to women and are putting in their best efforts to ensure that women are not only safe but that they also feel this sense of security in their minds. To do that, we have different mechanisms, we have visible policing through beats and patrols with LED lights; they are positioned at vantage points and important junctions so that when women cross the area they get a psychological reassurance upon seeing the police on duty.
We are taking all efforts to ensure safety for women and when I say that, I say it with all sincerity. Whenever we get a complaint relating to women, it is given utmost and immediate importance and their grievances redressed. We are getting a lot of grievances, which is encouraging because only when people get a proper response, do they come forward with more and more complaints.
I also want to point out that, more than physical danger, now there’s an increasing incidence of cyber stalking offences and more and more women are falling victim to such incidents. But very few of them are reporting the crime. I urge and request the women affected by such criminal acts to confidently report it to the police, via email or in person, so that their issues are addressed immediately. When they hesitate in the initial stages and allow it to grow further, it becomes unmanageable at one stage. By that time, enough damage has already been done. That situation can be avoided if they report it in the initial stage of harassment itself.
Of course, I needn’t specify this, they know enough to differentiate between real friends and the ones that are posing due to ulterior motives, but I urge them to be cautious about sharing their personal information on social media. If anybody is affected, if they report it to the police, prompt action will be taken.