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Behind Police Lines:
The Edgy Lives of Constables’ Wives
|by Shwetha E. George|
While the media’s focus has invariably been on police atrocities, not enough attention has been paid to the poor conditions under which police personnel at the lower levels of the constabulary live and work – factors which could play a part in triggering police brutality. A constable’s job is a highly coveted one in Kerala, with its high unemployment figures. Yet, life in the barracks is often far from congenial.
The ‘struggle’ begins the moment the Public Service Commission examination results are announced. A successful recruit then faces an extremely gruelling training programme at the Kerala Armed Police Battalion, which could take anything from nine months to three years. This is followed by another tough stint at one of the Armed Reserve Camps (ARC), with a transfer likely to other ARCs every three years. It is only after this phase is complete that a police constable can exercise any choice in his or her posting. Of course, by then the majority are well into their 40s, with their best years behind them.
The tensions inherent in a job that involves such strenuous training and entails confronting situations of conflict and violence often get transferred to family members of constables, especially their wives. Says Simi Prabhash, 35, “When I got married, my husband was undergoing his training at the KAP Battalion in Trichur and he would come home just twice a month.” Once he moved to the ARC in Kottayam, his home town, Simi moved to her mother-in-law’s home in order to meet her husband thrice a week. It’s only in the last five years that Simi, her husband and their two children have been able to live together as a family. Their dingy, two-room police lodging has a kitchen, a bedroom and a tiny toilet. The bed serves as dining table, study table and ironing board. In all probability, this will be their only permanent home.
Sreeja Ravindran, 35, who is married to a constable based in Trichur, recalls the first time her husband, Ravindran, left for his training at the KAP Battalion in Trichur. “It was barely three weeks after our marriage. I was 19 years old and all alone in his home at Alleppey. He was soon made the platoon leader of his team, and was granted a day off every month. His journey home would take 12 hours and he would end up spending only three or four hours, mostly in the wee hours of the night, and then he’d board the bus back to Trichur,” she says.
It’s Sreeja’s belief that a police constable’s wife has to be almost as tough as her husband just to cope with life and that is why she gets riled when she sees Malayalam films that portray police constables in a poor light. “In movies, they (constables) are either depicted as buffoons or as corrupt criminals. Why doesn’t anyone care to find out the struggles we face?” she asks angrily.
Both Prabhash and Ravindran, now in their 40s, have been police constables for the last 15 years, working on an 8 am to 8 pm shift. They do night shifts too: From 8 pm to 2 am. Prabhash commutes to work on his motorbike and makes sure that he has his lunch at home. Ravindran prefers to take the city bus and settles for a hotel meal for lunch. Neither gets a fuel allowance nor meal reimbursements. All they can afford to carry with them is a bottle of water.
Although every constable is entitled to a day off in a week, it is rarely granted since the ratio of policemen to citizens in Kerala is a 1,000 to 1, as opposed to the stipulated 500 to 1. But they get to earn an additional Rs 150–200 (US$1=Rs 44) if they work on an off-day, and this is a bonus they can ill-afford to lose, given their Rs 10,000 monthly salary.
The situation at home is no better. The biggest problem of this job is the difficulty in obtaining leave. And most often, police constables cannot be counted on in times of a domestic crisis. Women like Sreeja, Simi and Deepa Prasannan, 37, have had to fend for themselves whenever their children fall ill suddenly and need to be admitted into hospital, or a sudden death had occurred in the family. Because of this, the wives of police constables rarely seek employment elsewhere since one parent keeps such irregular hours.
Although Deepa lives in quarters that look a little better than those of others, and her husband – M.K. Prasannan, 42 – works as police constable in a police-station close by, she doesn’t think she is privileged in any way. Says Deepa, “He works as a ‘paaravu’ from 7 am to 2 pm. He has night duty thrice a week – it is either bike patrol from 4 pm to 5 am or jeep patrol from 11 pm to 5 am. He doesn’t get any time with the family.” Prasannan served for seven years in the ARC at Trichur, three years in Idukki and one year in the ARC in Kottayam, before settling down as local constable in the Kottayam East police station since the last five years.
“This may be a good job in terms of honour and security of tenure, but it is impossible for the family of a police constable to save, let alone build a house,” reveals Deepa. But more than money, it is the constables’ personal security that most worries their wives. Police constables are also the most vulnerable in any situation of conflict or violence. They are exposed to physical assault, disallowed to react at will and fall easy prey to ill health. For instance, on days when a VIP comes a-calling, constables have to stand in the sun for hours on end. “The trauma I go through each time my husband is called away to places of unrest is difficult to express. Now even my children have stopped asking me why their father is not home yet,” says Sreeja.
Since work and family conditions impact adversely on the attitudes and behaviour of the police, the authorities have been forced to envisage reform measures. Says Premji K. Nair, district president of Kerala Police Association, which represents police constables and head constables, “Even our designations have been changed. The ‘police constable’ has now become ‘civil police officer’ and the term ‘head constable’ has given away to ‘senior civil police officer’ from last February,” says Nair.
According to him, the government has also decided to cut down on time spent in training at various ARCs, and is beginning to assign local postings according to individual choice as soon as the new recruits complete their KAP Battalion training. This means new recruits could be living in police lodgings with their families in less than two years of joining the force. Earlier, postings at ‘mother-stations’ – ie, stations at a recruit’s own hometown or his spouse’s home town – were deliberately denied. Now, the department believes that a recruit is most suited to a posting in a place with which he or she is familiar, since the constable will have first-hand knowledge of the area, a wide social network and could make a smoother transition to post-retirement life.
The idea is to train police personnel who are “civic-minded” rather than “force-oriented”. This in turn will hopefully mean more enlightened and citizen-friendly constables, who are after all the backbone of the police force.
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