Between 2014 and 2018, the number of FIRs lodged at Kalu police station has declined from 74 to 37; locals say they have never faced a request for bribe from cops
"Saaheb [sir], we confess that we were drunk and drove our tempo into the road divider, but we stole no iron pipes," pleaded Birbal Ram, a young man with a weathered face. The day was July 4, the temperature was 44 degrees Celsius, and Birbal and his co-accused, Gopal, had just turned down hot tea served to them in paper cups.
The Saaheb, head constable Raju Ram, told them to have some nimbu-paani (lemonade). "Nimbu-paani will turn him sober. But first serve them cold water," Raju Ram instructed a constable before turning his attention back to Birbal Ram. "We're checking the CCTV footage. You don't need to worry if you haven't stolen anything."
Detained for allegations of ramming a toll plaza while drunk, and stealing iron pipes stored inside, tempo drivers Birbal and Gopal were squatting on the floor of a small, sparsely furnished room at Rajasthan's Kalu police station - adjudged India's best among 15,666 police stations by the ministry of home affairs in 2018. If arrested, Birbal Ram and Gopal would spend the night in a lock-up equipped with an attached toilet and an air cooler.
'SABSE BEST THANA'
The complainant in the case, Ram Kishore Swami, who works at the toll plaza located on the border between jurisdictions covered by Kalu and Lunkaransar police stations, was relieved that the crime happened on the Kalu side. "Sabse best thana [the very best police station]. They are never reluctant to register a case," he said, before walking off to the mess for a free lunch.
Every visitor at this police station is offered cold water and tea. Those coming from faraway places are also given lunch. "A complainant may not have had the time to eat. Us offering food helps them manage their frustration," Devilal Saharan, the station house officer (SHO) who took over in February, said.
Saharan, 33, doesn't only believe in basic hospitality; he has memorised and can recite the DK Basu guidelines - a set of rules to be followed after the arrest of a suspect. "To follow the law by the book, I need to know the law by heart," said Saharan, who is serving as an SHO for the first time in his five-year service with the Rajasthan police. The police station also has a separate help desk for women, a waiting room furnished with sofa sets, and walls without any trace of gutkha stains. When complainants walk into the police station, they are greeted with the trademark welcome: "We promise you relief within 24 hours."
JUST 7 YEARS OLD
Set up in 2012 to cater to villagers who would earlier have to travel up to 50km to Lunkaransar and Mahajan to file a complaint, the Kalu police station is located in an arid and sandy region about 300km from Jaipur and 90km from Bikaner.
Sand dunes flank the recently constructed state highway leading to the Kalu police station for several kilometers. In summer, the temperature can go up to 50 degrees Celsius. In winters, it dips to two degrees. With 25 villages under its jurisdiction, the police station serves a population of around 65,000 of whom most are involved in farming or cattle-rearing.
At first glance, the campus housing a double-storey building is unlike most police stations in the country. An integral part of the police station is a hut-like structure built with wooden logs, called Panchayat Kaksh, where mediations are held to solve quarrels, which make the majority of the complaints. The campus also houses volleyball and badminton courts, small apartments for the police personnel, and work is underway on a garden with a drip irrigation facility.
On most days, the police station is deserted, with visitors never exceeding single figures. "There are more dust storms in a day than visitors. Sometimes, no one turns up the entire day," said Sahi Ram, a constable posted here for over two years. So what makes this police station in the middle of a desert with few cases to deal with the best in the country?
THE CRIME SCENE
From 74 in 2014 to 37 last year, the number of first information reports (FIRs) registered at this police station has been on a constant decline. "Only four cases remain unsolved so far," said Saharan. Since 2014, 10 thefts have taken place here, a dozen rape cases, six instances of kidnapping, and no robberies.
The police station has registered three murder cases since 2014 - one in the first year and two in 2018 - but two were quashed. "One turned out to be a case of abetment of suicide, and the other was deemed false as the death was caused by electrocution without any foul play," said Parmeshwar Suthar, the 28-year-old former SHO under whose reign the police station topped the list.
Suthar is currently the SHO at Chunawadh police station in Sri Ganganagar, a district located close to the India-Pakistan border, and about 200km from Kalu. He said that while the "gentleness" of the local residents helps control the crime rate, the area was fraught with gambling and drinking until a year ago.
Suthar was the chief guest at an athletic competition last year when an incident drew his attention to this menace. "A young runner was left bleeding because he had stepped on a broken beer bottle. The SHO climbed the stage, took the microphone, and warned the public that any incident of public drinking or gambling would be dealt with firmly," said Praveen Lal, a local shopkeeper.
The patrolling in the villages was intensified and many public drinkers and gamblers booked under the Rajasthan Police Act. Kalu market was covered by CCTV cameras and beat officers were told to strengthen their network of informers. Some of the information is passed on while the police officers play basketball and volleyball with the locals in the station premises. "Even before this police station topped the rankings, criminals knew that this wasn't an area to be targeted. They realised that the police would certainly get them," said Babu Singh, sarpanch of the nearby Garabdesar village.
The decline in crime rate is only one of the attributes that helped this police station rise up the ranking system of the ministry of home affairs. Apart from crime data, the survey also considered station infrastructure, community policing, and people's feedback. Sixty persons were interviewed in every jurisdiction about their experience with the local police. These included 10 people leaving the police station, 25 in the local market, and 25 random pedestrians.
In 2017, when a total of 59 police stations among 15,535 in India were shortlisted for the survey, Kalu did not figure in that list. The RS Puram police station in Coimbatore got the top rank. A year later, Kalu made it to the shortlisted 75 police stations among 15,666 police stations across the country, before eventually topping the list. Campbell Bay in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Farakka in West Bengal bagged the second and third positions respectively.
On a day HT visited the police station, SHO Saharan was instructing a beat officer to eavesdrop on conversations in a village where a 23-year-old married woman had gone missing. "Her family suspects she has eloped with a man. We will find her soon, but our job goes beyond reuniting her with her family. We are afraid that she could face a backlash from her community once she is back," said Saharan. The beat officer's brief included gauging the mood in the woman's family, calming down the locals, and advising them to do the right and lawful thing.
Elsewhere at the station, woman constable Dhapa Saran was preparing for damage control in a different case. She was on the phone with a 17-year-old girl who had been lured away by a man from her village earlier this month.
"We arrested the man for rape within six hours of the girl's disappearance and a message was sent to men in all the villages that sex with a minor girl amounts to rape [under the Indian Penal Code]," says Saharan.
Saran helped rescue the girl and jail the man, but her role didn't end there. When her parents weren't looking, she asked the girl for her phone number. "I have to ensure her parents don't punish her for the man's crime, so I speak to her frequently," said Saran, who also visits the girl at times. She makes sure to dress in civil clothes to avoid reigniting rumours in the village.
Locals say they have never faced a request for bribe while dealing with the police in Kalu. "Our policemen have flat stomachs. That is because they do not eat our money, said Ayub Ali, a businessman. "The Kalu police are not beggars," said Manak Chand Naai, who runs a juice shop in the market. The local police refuse to drink even tea or juice for free in the local markets. But be it the air-conditioner in the SHOs office, the steel plates used in the police station's mess, or the water coolers installed at the gates, they are all "gifted" by the residents of Kalu.
The reputation wasn't built overnight, says Pradeep Mohan Sharma, the superintendent of police (Bikaner). "Five SHOs have served at this police station. All of them were officers with impeccable integrity. They ensured that their subordinates were at their best while dealing with the public. Now, any officer who is posted there knows what the reputation is and what is to be done to maintain it," said Sharma.
Om Prakash, a sanitation worker from Nathusar village, said when he was asked by a policeman to clean up the station last winter, he was prepared to not get paid. "I couldn't believe it when the police gave me Rs 200 for a few hours of work," said Prakash, who now works at the police station. He says on the weekends when staff join him in cleaning the premises.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Apart from informers, the police also rely on a 37-member Community Liaison Group (CLG) consisting of elderly influential people chosen from each village under their jurisdiction. In cases of conflicts and quarrels, be it within a family or between neighbours, the two warring parties are first "counseled" by members of CLG before any FIR is filed. "After a quarrel, a person is in a vengeful mood. Our job is to calm them down and explain to them how these legal battles go on for years and drain both parties of their financial resources," said Suresh Kumar Dudhani, owner of a food processing unit and a member of CLG. "We are patient listeners and have a reputation for being unbiased," added Poonam Chand, another CLG member who runs a shop. The CLG members and the police officers meet twice every week.
One of the recent cases solved by CLG involved a 26-year-old woman, her husband, and her in-laws. Earlier this year, the woman, who rears cattle, accused her in-laws of abusing her and wanted an FIR filed against them. It took days of negotiations before the issue was "sorted out" without a police case. "Initially, I resented CLG's advice. But they were able to convince my in-laws to let my husband and me live in a separate house nearby. We live peacefully now," said the woman, who did not want to be named.
SHO Saharan insists, however, that he takes a tough stand on domestic violence. "Most men here do not understand that even slapping their wives is a crime. So, the police takes a call on whether a conflict is to be referred to the CLG or not."
Bhupendra Singh, Rajasthan's director general of police (DGP), said the accessibility and outreach of Kalu police station made it stand out from other police stations in the country. "The Kalu police are highly accessible. The police return your call if they couldn't receive it. The SHOs in Kalu make it a point to visit every village once a fortnight. This is the general attitude with the Rajasthan Police, but has Kalu excelled," he said.
Neeraj Kumar, a former Delhi Police commissioner, said Kalu was special since it outperformed police stations in metro cities. "They wouldn't have all the facilities enjoyed by those in metropolitan cities. They did well to go beyond basic policing and keeping the police station clean to offer comfort and mental relief to their complainants," said Kumar.Before the day ended, the Kalu police had checked the CCTV footage of the toll plaza to conclude that the iron pipes were not stolen, but broken during the drunk-driving accident. Drivers Birbal Ram and Gopal spent a few hours in the air-cooled police lock-up and were produced before a magistrate, but let off without jail time. SHO Saharan did not think there was any need for that. "I am certain they won't repeat the crime."Get access to India's fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code "GETPRO". Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.