Going from Zero FIRs to e-FIRs
The government must allow the online filing of first information reports in rape cases as that alone will ensure mandatory and automatic registration of complaints
On January 18, 2013, Delhi police chief Neeraj Kumar announced that Zero First Information Reports (FIRs) may be registered on the basis of a woman’s statement at any police station irrespective of jurisdiction. This means women can file an FIR at any police station and the complaint is required to be registered on the basis of the woman’s complaint verbatim. Mr. Kumar stated: “The woman’s statement has to be taken as gospel truth and a probe needs to be initiated on its basis.”
Important step forward
At the same time, the Delhi police chief announced a series of other measures such as the recruitment of 418 women sub-inspectors and 2,088 women constables, deployment of PCR vans outside women’s colleges, the provision that women can call 100 to seek assistance to be dropped home at night by a PCR van, and 24-hour police cover for areas around entertainment hubs with heightened security between 8 pm and 1 am. While the foregoing measures must certainly be welcomed as an important step forward towards making the criminal justice system functional, it is surprising that e-governance has not been utilised by the Delhi police as an important solution in a country which is considered the world’s leading provider of IT enabled solutions.
E-governance is the application of information and communication technology to delivering government services, exchange of information and integration of various stand-alone systems and services between the government and citizens as well as back-office processes within the government. Through e-governance, government services can be provided to citizens in an efficient and transparent manner, which is of desperate need in India.
As shown by the introduction of the Zero FIR, the starting point towards improving criminal justice is the filing of the criminal complaint itself. It is well known that the filing of FIRs, particularly for cognisable offenses, is an extremely difficult exercise — more so for a rape victim who has to ceaselessly recount the horrific event. Police stations often refuse to register FIRs for cognisable complaints, and innumerable rapes around the country go unreported. The victims then are forced to file a private complaint in court under Section 156(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) seeking an order directing the police to register an FIR. The police chief’s announcement that the woman’s statement will be taken as the “gospel truth” is an important first step that will hopefully enable rape victims to register an FIR.
The police have often taken the view that, under Section 154 of the CrPC, complaints need to be investigated before the FIR is registered because the complaint could be a disguised civil or commercial dispute or a way of settling personal enmity. Complaints of criminal cheating and fraud are sometimes filed as a way of pressuring business associates to settle financial disputes or for personal grudges. However, this is highly unlikely to occur in the case of rape. In fact, there is no reason why all complaints for at least cognisable offences should not be registered as FIRs and then investigated.
While the Supreme Court has, in various judgments, taken contradictory views on the issue of whether the police are required to investigate a complaint before registering an FIR under Section 154 of the CrPC, it has repeatedly expressed its deep anguish over the failure of police to register FIRs, particularly in rape cases. Hopefully, the police will now register an FIR based on the woman’s statement as per the recently announced measures. However, the mandatory and automatic registration of FIRs can be ensured only through e-governance, that is, by providing for online registration of FIRs by citizens.
The online registration of FIRs was supposed to be implemented by 2013. On March 21, 2012, the then Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, stated in the Rajya Sabha that online registration of FIRs would be possible once the server and network connectivity was established by the end of 2012 or early 2013. However, the online filing of FIRs will be made possible only upon the implementation of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), an ambitious Rs. 2,000 crore project of the Home Ministry, aimed at increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of policing through e-governance by creating a state-of-the-art IT-enabled crime tracking system for investigation of crime and detection of criminals.
Under CCTNS, 14,000 police stations will be automated as well as 6,000 offices of higher police officials. The CCTNS is a platform for sharing real time information by law-enforcement agencies, which will improve identification of criminals and crime investigation. Funds in the amount of Rs. 418 crore have reportedly been released to the States/Union Territories and 4.54 lakh people have been trained. The CCTNS project was supposed to be completed in March 31, 2012. However, in June 2012, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) extended the deadline to March 2015.
In November 2012, the Home Ministry began monitoring the status of the CCTNS project on a weekly basis and appointed 20 Joint Secretaries to monitor the progress of the project and ensure completion by March 2015. The delay in project implementation was reportedly due to the non-availability of common application software (CAS) and infrastructure problems. Since law and order is a State issue, issues of coordination between the States also contributed to the delay. However, it is unclear why the Indian government needs to implement a Rs.2,000 crore project before enabling online filing of FIRs. In view of the great national imperative in creating deterrence against rape, websites and e-filing mechanisms should be immediately created to permit e-filing of FIRs at least in rape cases.
The online filing of annual accounts and other documents was successfully implemented several years ago by the Ministry of Company Affairs. Various State governments have also provided for online filing of police complaints and online payment of traffic challans. The Himachal Pradesh Police have introduced an interactive portal called “Kanoon Vyavastha,” the first of its kind in the country, by which a police complaint can be filed online or by SMS. As per a report in the Financial Express, of 1,821 SMSs received, 22 FIRs were registered without the complainant having to visit the police station. Of these 22 FIRs, reportedly only one was related to a rape case. After the launch of SMS service in May 2010, 4,392 SMSs were received, of which 82 FIRs were registered. The complainant can check the status of the FIR online and post comments. The web portal is used for daily crime reporting, providing details of missing persons and vehicles and road accidents. Jalandhar reportedly has an online crime tip page where people can anonymously inform the police of a crime that has been committed. Similarly, Maharashtra has an e-complaint system for reporting minor crimes, that is, non-cognisable offences.
Simultaneously, with the introduction of Zero FIRs, online filing of FIRs at least in rape cases should immediately be implemented irrespective of the status of the CCTNS project. The introduction of e-FIRs will be an important signal to all criminals that rape will not go unpunished.
(Aparna Viswanathan is author of Cyber Law: Indian and International Perspectives (Lexis Nexis Butterworths Wadhwa 2012))