In the light of repeated terrorist attacks in various metros of the country, the importance of the beat constable, who would know every little detail of what is happening in his locality, is being realised. The Prime Minister made a statement to this effect in 2007 and ever since then the matter has been in focus off and on. Recently, the Chennai police has decided to revive the concept of assigning areas for beat coverage by police personnel up to the rank of sub-inspector. But the question remains as to whether the concept is feasible any longer, given the rapidly changing nature of the city and its suburbs.

The new system being implemented envisages placing 460 “pockets” under the jurisdiction of the 90 police stations within city limits. Each pocket would be assigned to an SI and a few other policemen. They will patrol the area and maintain a close link with students, traders and residents. The patrols will work three shifts. The Commissioner of Police, who made a success out of the system in Trichy, hopes to repeat the same here as well. He has declared that the scheme will take policing out of the stations and make it more visible and interactive.

In the past, Chennai was known for the efficacy of its beat constables. The city was then small and had specifically designated residential and office areas. The former largely had independent houses and it was easy to know who lived where. But over a period of time, all that has changed. Mixed zoning has been in effect for over a decade and so offices and residences co-exist. The presence of commercial entities means most areas of the city witness a large amount of floating population by day and in places where IT companies and call centres exist, by night also.

Secondly, most houses have now been replaced by high-rise. Where one family lived there are several which means a correspondingly higher number of individuals. This is in addition to support staff and those who call on errands such as delivery personnel. How are all these people to be tracked by a beat constable?

Lastly, shortage of police personnel in Chennai is a well-known fact. In 2010, the shortage was around 3000 and this year, an estimate has it that at a ratio of one constable to every 413 residents, Chennai ranks very low in terms of police protection. And what is more several of these are diverted for providing security to VIPs. Even in 2009 it was announced that constables would be put back on duty from VIP service but this is yet to take place. As a consequence it is very unclear as to how beat patrolling can be effective if the requisite number of constables is not available.

Taking recourse to modern technology may on the other hand prove more effective. The police has already experimented with the installation of cameras at traffic junctions to monitor violations. It may help if a similar idea, in terms of street cameras to monitor what is going in a neighbourhood, is implemented. That way, sitting at a police booth, the police can keep an eye on an entire neighbourhood. The police may also want to build a network with security agencies that man various private enclaves and gated communities. Perhaps the best method would be to build confidence and communications with local residents.