The murder of Manish Kumar - a relative of the Prime Minster who was thrown off a moving train in Bihar - has again brought into focus the insecurity prevailing in rail travel in much of the country. The attack on women passengers from the North East in Katihar, the stripping of a Mizo girl, also on a rail segment in Bihar, the rape of a young girl on a suburban train in Mumbai, the regular and forcible occupation of seats by politicians and goons, and the high rates of railway crimes all suggest that rail travel is fraught with danger in the country.

Indeed, the railway services in Bihar, especially on the route from Mughal Sarai to Mokameh Junction are notorious for crimes, unruly youths and poor security. Gangs of youth and short distance commuters barge into the compartments and evict passengers from their legitimate seats. But this section of railways is notorious for other reasons too. Serious crimes, including violent ones are also fairly common. Dacoities, robberies, thefts and vandalism are rampant in this section of the Indian railways. Of all the railway dacoities in India, almost 51% are reported from Bihar and UP segments. Dacoities on the Patna rail police jurisdiction, covering the Mughal Sarai-Mokameh route account for almost 23% of all crimes according to a recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau.

Although security in the trains and on platforms is the responsibility of Government Railway Police (GRP), a state police unit, nevertheless, it is the image of the Indian railways that is adversely affected. Considering that this section is the main route connecting Delhi to Calcutta and the NE states, the importance of security on this route cannot be ignored either. The situation in other parts of the country is marginally better. Anyone traveling in Mumbai or Kolkatta local trains, parts of Central or NE India and even around Delhi would have experienced harassment, threats, over-crowding and fear of victimization. A rail journey is hardly a pleasant experience in the country.

For most IPS officers a posting in the railways is not desirable, and their efforts are rather focused upon getting back to mainstream police establishment.
 •  Sexual violence on trains
Security personnel from the Railway ministry and state police establishments too have not been professional in dealing with this problem. For most IPS officers a posting in the railways is not desirable, and their efforts are rather focused upon getting back to mainstream police establishment. Accordingly, police leadership too has not been dealing with this problem seriously.

Problems ensuring security

There are many limitations in providing security to the rail travelers. The sheer volume of traffic, around 40-50 lakh people traveling on a daily basis, makes any kind of management a nightmare. Since almost every passenger is in transit the reporting of crimes is a serious problem too. Even if a crime is discovered early, the report can only be made at the next station. Here too, only serious cases involving assaults and physical harm are reported for the victim has little time to go the GRP to file an FIR. In most cases the FIR is lodged only at the final destination of the passenger; that may be hundreds of miles away. By the time this report is received at the police post that has jurisdiction over the area the passenger and all the witnesses have gone home. Except for the FIR there is virtually no other evidence to investigate the case.

In a large number of cases the victim does not even know where his bag or other valuables have been stolen, and discovers they are missing only at the destination. This makes it difficult to even establish the place of occurrence of the crime; that affects its eventual investigation and prosecution. Not surprisingly, the clearance rates of crimes on railways are very low.

Limited seats and lack of accommodation for all passengers leads to forcible entries and ‘capture’ of seats by aggressive passengers or anti-social elements. This situation also creates opportunities for thieves to steal property. In crowded compartments it is easy for criminal gangs to pilfer from passenger bags and carry-ons. Low ratios of police to passengers make it difficult for police to provide security to everyone. Over-crowding creates obstacles for police personnel to travel from one coach to another; this inhibits patrolling in the compartments and obstructs quick response to calls for help.

A major associated problem is the over-crowding and entry of a large number of people on railway stations. In fact, most large railway stations serve as shelters for homeless people. The entry of unauthorized coolies, vendors and a large number of illegal travelers or people coming to see off their friends and relatives, all lead to an unmanageable crowding on railway platforms. These situations affect the provision of security on the railways and makes rail travel dangerous in the country.

Fixing 'broken windows'

The problem of restoring order and controlling crime in any region is rooted in the establishment of a modicum of civility and safety for ordinary citizens in their everyday life. Crime is a symptom of deep rooted social-political and economic problems in which the inability of a community to stand up for itself is perhaps most significant. The incompetence of the enforcement agencies, disintegrated community groups, powerless NGOs and indifferent private businesses contribute to this situation. Furthermore, their unwillingness to cooperate and stand together is a major reason that fails to deter the motivated offenders and provides easy opportunities to commit serious crimes. In the United States, the term ‘Broken windows’ is used to describe this situation.

The 'broken windows' approach recognizes that serious crimes are the proverbial tip of the iceberg; usually in areas where serious crimes are observed, one finds that beneath the surface an enormous number of much smaller offences go unchecked and unpunished. The thesis of broken windows argues that the key to control the crime situation is the regeneration of the community that believes in its capacity to improve its condition. This is brought about by understanding the situational context of problems, concentrating upon the smaller issues of orderliness, abatement of nuisances, petty crimes and rule of law. It is this attempt to establish basic order that begins the process of combating serious crimes.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, Environmental Criminology and Problem Oriented Policing are some of the ways in which crime problems of similar nature have been dealt in the US, Britain, Germany, Australia and Sweden. All these new approaches focus upon the context in which crime occurs. Situational prevention seeks to reduce the opportunities for specific forms of crime by increasing the effort and risk of criminal behavior and reducing its rewards. This approach was used very successfully in the New York transit system, and subsequently to fight crime in the city itself, with dramatic results.

The 'broken windows' approach recognizes that in areas where serious crimes are observed, one finds that beneath the surface an enormous number of much smaller offences go unchecked and unpunished.
The possible solution lies in first attending to the smaller problems and then learning from their results to develop bigger and bolder solutions to the more serious problems of rail travel. Since large crowds on railway platforms and within passenger coaches create the situation for most crimes, the need is to deal with them first. Here, the experience of handling large groups on airports could be emulated. The railways need to ensure that entry on its premises is restricted only to bonafide passengers who have a valid ticket. In order to safeguard a premise the entry and exit points needs to be strengthened. Several designs have been created to control crowds.

Subway stations around the world control their premises through turnstiles where the passenger has to place his ticket for gaining entry to the platform. These help in reducing the need for ticket checkers who find it difficult to handle large groups. Indian railway stations can also adopt this mechanism without incurring huge costs. The extra inspectors could then be utilized for checking illegal entrants who may attempt to slip from other entry points. The railways can also place strict restrictions on the amount of baggage that passengers can carry and this too will help in cluttering the space within the compartments as well as increasing surveillance. Once the entry of unwanted people on the platform and coaches is controlled the other steps become easier to handle. In order to control the entry-exit points the railways may need to redesign the stations or alter existing gates and check points.

Considering that video cameras are now fairly affordable every station could also be installed with one that can record continuously for long periods of time. This will not only act as a deterrent but also help identify habitual offenders and violators. Even the presence of video cameras is known to deter offenders, a situation known as the ‘multiplier effect’. The technology to recognize faces has been applied by security agencies in the US and can be developed by Indian industry as well.

Additionally, if every traveler is properly ticketed and his particulars stored in a database, it will become easier to identify passengers traveling in a particular coach. This identification can in turn help police investigation of reported crimes, for the search of suspects can be narrowed down to those traveling in the particular coach. Further, this will also help identify those who may be causing harassment to other passengers and wrecking railway property. It is also not too far fetched to suggest that video cameras and communication systems could be installed in every railway coach [beginning with more notorious trains first]. These systems can further summon help in emergencies.

With each dramatic and tragic event that hits the headlines, the demand for solutions is raised, but the typical response - additional security personnel - has not worked satisfactorily. Crimes on trains are only the most visible consequence of overlooking many minor shortfalls in the system itself, and we cannot hope for safer journeys until each of these is tackled first.