Cash, caste and middlemen rule murky underbelly of police transfers in Karnataka

The unscrupulous system of paid transfers has resulted in shorter tenures and police officers sparing no opportunity to recover their investment, by accepting or extorting illegal bribes.
'Santro' Ravi
'Santro' Ravi
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Every now and then the citizens of this state are given to understand that ‘plum’ postings are assigned for monetary considerations..There cannot be two views that if an officer shells out money to get a plum posting, he would employ every means possible to recover the money he has invested and make every effort to make money for future needs and therefore, this forms the vicious circle of corruption” -  Karnataka High Court, March 15,  2021.

In an explosive press conference last week, former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy alleged that a notorious human trafficker called ‘Santro’ Ravi was closely associated with cabinet ministers and called the shots in transfers and postings of officials. Around the same time, audio clips of police officers requesting Ravi for transfers to ‘lucrative’ posts were aired in which he was heard boasting about his connections and price tags of police stations. To top it all, photos of Ravi posing with stacks of money and of him meeting ministers went viral.

While the ministers have been striving to ward off the allegations, this episode has drawn the citizens’ attention towards the murky system of transfers, marked by corruption, opacity and political interference. Apart from the lamentable irony of a human trafficker deciding where police officers ought to serve, it is important to notice the concept of ‘lucrative’ posts and how middlemen and politicians have usurped control over transfers, especially police transfers.

The supersystem of paid transfers and lucrative posts

This is not the first time that the system of paid transfers raised its ugly head. A few months ago, MTB Nagaraj, Minister for Small Scale Industries, lost his guard and hinted that a police officer, who died shortly after his suspension, may have paid Rs 70-80 lakh to get posted as the KR Puram police station’s Station House Officer. In May last year, an MLA in Chikkamagalur was heard rebuking a Sub Inspector for taking charge against his wishes and even asked him to leave.

In 2016, following the suicidal deaths of two Deputy Superintendents of Police and the resignation of another, there was a spotlight on political interference in transfers and administration of the Home Department. Retired officers pointed out that political patronage on the strength of caste and money was ruining bureaucracy and the police.

The system of paid transfers has been succinctly described in the following words “An official seeking transfer to a greener pasture approaches a politician, strikes a deal, and gets a recommendation letter. The ministry concerned yields to pressure and facilitates the transfer.” Retired Director General of Police DV Guruprasad had opined that the ‘transfer season heralded a billion rupee industry’ and by issuing recommendation letters (colloquially known as ‘minutes’) to loyalists, officers belonging to the same caste or the highest bidders, legislators enrich their coffers and entrench control over the officers.

Though the official remuneration is the same for all the officers of a particular rank, irrespective of the post they hold, certain posts and police stations have always been perceived as ‘lucrative’. This is primarily based on the post’s potential to help the officer earn income from illegal sources. For instance, Central Bengaluru and other areas with a high number of commercial establishments can be extremely lucrative as these establishments are often forced to cough up money regularly. Similarly, an area where several housing projects and commercial buildings are being developed is lucrative as disputes are bound to arise due to imperfect property rights, breach of obligations, etc. It is common knowledge that police officers ‘settle’ these civil disputes, especially real estate disputes, by misusing their powers in exchange for exorbitant bribes. In contrast, non-executive posts in wings such as the Crime Records Bureau, Intelligence, etc. are less sought after as there is less scope for unlawful enrichment.

The legal framework

In 2006, ‘in the interest of preserving and strengthening the rule of law’, the Supreme Court issued certain directions to reform the police force. One of the directions was the constitution of a Police Establishment Board in every state to oversee the transfers of police officers below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. The Board’s decisions were not to be overruled by the government ordinarily. Thereafter, the Karnataka Police Act, 1963 was amended to establish the Board. Section 20B of the Act stipulates that the Board shall comprise the Director General & Inspector General of Police and three Additional DGPs. The law expects the Board to arrive at decisions independently, without being influenced by politicians.

However, the infamous ‘minute system’, which was explained earlier, found its way to the Board and eventually, these recommendations and minutes guided the discretion of the Board. In 2017, when a former police constable approached the High Court alleging blatant violation of the SC’s directions and Section 20B, the government attempted to defend the practice of legislators making recommendations. While a single-bench of the High Court passed an ambiguous order regarding the menace of political interference, in 2020, a division bench comprising Justices Oka and Kinagi adopted a firm stand. As a result, DG & IGP Praveen Sood and the Additional Chief Secretary Rajneesh Goel filed affidavits undertaking that the Board and the state government would ‘ignore’ recommendations of politicians and act in accordance with the law and the Supreme Court’s directions on transfers.

Deleterious effects of the unscrupulous system

Recent events clearly indicate that the law on transfers is being flouted with impunity and the violations even amount to contempt of court. The unscrupulous system of paid transfers has resulted in shorter tenures and police officers sparing no opportunity to recover their investment, by accepting or extorting illegal bribes. It has also led to unhealthy competition among officers to grab plum postings by ousting their colleagues deviously while honest officers who do not enjoy political patronage or financial strength might get shunted.

These issues plague departments and bodies such as revenue, registration, BBMP, etc. as well. If civil society and the judiciary ignore the gross illegality and deleterious effects of the system of paid transfers, governance will continue to suffer while the rule of law fades.

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