Humble Submissions

Who watches the watchmen

A need for private security points to a perception of the growing divide between the rich and the poor and the volatility of the gap.

 |  Humble Submissions  |  4-minute read |   10-10-2014
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It has become trite and fashionable to say that as a society we are suffering a crisis in the rule of law. I would posit that an aspect of the lack of faith in law enforcement and the justice system is the increasingly visible extent to which private citizens (dare I say the upper middle class?) appear to be making their own arrangements, nowhere so visible as in the mushrooming of private security agencies.

Once only seen outside office towers and malls, blue shirted, peaked capped guards now stand outside most houses in well-to-do colonies, or sit in little temporary structures. The ubiquity of the arrangement is what makes them almost invisible. Why, you ask, do I make so much of it?

Well, first, because of its philosophical significance. Political thought has always located police powers within the realm of the state; that the powers (and concomitant duties) of surveillance, protection, detention and enforcement lie in the public domain, as a part of the social contract. That those with disposable income and assets worth protecting do not trust in either the deterrent value or the efficacy of the police reveals a crisis of confidence in law enforcement.

The number of private security guards now outnumber policemen by multiples. Even 15 years ago, gated communities with CCTV cameras, and private security forces were the stuff of science fiction. We've come a long way to accepting them as normal and considering them aspirational. It also disturbs me that I can think of at least one judicial tribunal which is guarded by a security agency, and not by the CISF.

Socially, a need for private security points to a perception (if not demonstrably a reality) of the growing divide between the rich and the poor and the volatility of the gap. We have close parallels in South Africa and Brazil, both countries where the rise in crime has gone far beyond statistics to become a cultural byword. Security agencies serve as a salve for this anxiety. Needless to say, whether accompanied by private security or not, a person is far less likely to suffer a violent crime in Jorbagh or on Napean Sea Road than just about anywhere else in India.

The reality is that the private security sector is practically unregulated. A legislative framework exists in the form of the Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act, 2005 and subordinate state rules, but it suffers from the common Indian vice of the toothless yet prolix law.

The Act sets out a licensing regime (unencumbered by an inspection, complaints or penalties mechanism) and is accompanied by rules which specify which pocket the guards' whistle ought to be in, and how fast they ought to be able to run. The result is an effectively disorganized sector, manned by underpaid, undertrained, uninstructed workers, many of whom are migrants and whose employment is temporary in character.

The reality of the situation is that these guards control entry and exit into colonies, act as a parking and traffic police, and have been known to restrain and assault people. Most carry only non-lethal weapons, but there is a huge demand for "personal security officers" with arms licenses.

The legal framework neither restricts nor regulates such an eventuality - and the consequent possibilities, as best illustrated by the Ponty Chadha massacre, are horrific.

But the greatest fear arising from this situation is that we stand to create a culture of citizens who are not used to questioning the authority exercised by a man with a stick and a peaked hat. The authority of the police flows from statutes and the Constitution, and we are protected against its unreasonable or illegal exercise.

The authority of a private security guard is exactly coextensive with that of a private citizens right to defend themselves with reasonable force against trespass and violence - any public extension is an illegitimate charade.


Satyajit Sarna Satyajit Sarna @satyajitsarna

The writer is a lawyer and writer based in Delhi. He is the author of The Angel's Share (HarperCollins, 2012). He blogs at

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