The Mumbai Police is about to gift its force something that every officer and constable across India has dreamed of for years: an eight-hour work shift instead of the gruelling 12-hour shifts they currently work.

The radical change was first introduced in two city police stations earlier this month, and by the beginning of June, it will be implemented for all 50,000 policemen and women across ranks in Mumbai. The decision aims to address growing reports of physical and mental health problems among over-worked police personnel, and the staff at the north-eastern Deonar and Kurla police stations – where eight-hour shifts were recently introduced – have been delighted to finally get more time for rest, leisure and family.

However, even as police personnel in the rest of Mumbai eagerly await the new shift system, there is a high degree of scepticism among staff about the feasibility of three eight-hour shifts a day instead of two 12-hour shifts. Without actually increasing the number of personnel in the force, they suspect any attempt to decrease work hours will eventually fall flat.

Accommodating an extra shift

South Mumbai’s DB Marg police station has been given nine vans and SUVs to carry out its patrolling duties. To have them operate during two shifts of 12 hours each, the station needs 18 drivers. For three eight-hour shifts, the police station would need 27 drivers. “But in actuality, we have been sanctioned only seven drivers in all,” said Suresh Kadam, a police inspector at DB Marg station. “There is a clear shortage of staff, but we now have to accommodate an extra shift. How do we realistically do that?”

The DB Marg police station is scheduled to introduce eight-hour shifts from May 30. With barely a week to go, Kadam has worked out some potential solutions. “On a trial basis, we will have to reduce the number of personnel deployed at different beats in this area,” he said. “Where five policemen used to do the job, we will have to use three.”

While Kadam is curious to see how long this trial period will work successfully, retired IPS officer YP Singh is less optimistic. The Indian Police Act of 1861 mandates that a police officer is “always on duty”, and Singh believes this has often been taken at face-value rather than in spirit.

“The eight-hour shift will be breached more often that complied with, and will exist mainly on paper,” said Singh, who emphasises that healthier working hours are a small step in the right direction, but not enough. “Something is better than nothing, but shift timings always get breached when there are law and order problems, and that happens too often in Mumbai.”

Over-worked, exhausted

The demand for eight-hour shifts in the Indian police force has been long-standing and backed by several surveys and reports by expert committees. Last year, a study done by the union government’s Bureau of Police Research and Development emphasised that increasing manpower is the only feasible way to implement 8-hour shifts in police stations across India.

The extensive survey covered nearly 15,000 policemen and women from 319 police stations in 23 states. It found that more than 90% of the police staff worked for more than 8 hours a day, with a sizeable chunk working up to 14 hours a day. In addition to that, 80% were recalled to duty during their off-work hours. What’s worse, 73.6% of the police staff is unable to avail of their weekly offs even once a month. Unsurprisingly, the study found police staff across India to be over-exhausted, frustrated, low on self-esteem, poor in health and disenchanted with work schedules that leave little time for family or social life.

Currently, according to the study, the strength of the police force is only 61% of what it needs to be in order to introduce a healthy eight-hour shift. To introduce such shifts, the government would have to be willing to invest in greater manpower in the force, an investment that would be worth it because it would inevitably lead to a more efficient and motivated police force.

‘It’s possible even with low manpower’

So far, however, the government has not seemed inclined to increase the size of the force. “Across the country, there are loads of vacancies in the police force, particularly in the lower ranks, but those posts are not getting filled even though lakhs of candidates apply for the job,” said GP Joshi, a retired IPS officer and former director of the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

Joshi believes the police is also constantly falling short of manpower because the nature of the force’s work has changed drastically over the years. “Today, most of the time the police is deployed in bandobasts and on VIP duty,” he said. “But if everybody is put on law and order duty, when will the same staff get time for crime investigation? This is the reason crime convictions are so low in the country.”

Despite this, Dolphy D’Souza, convener of the Police Reforms Watch in Mumbai, believes that implementation of eight-hour shifts is actually possible in the city and across the country. “Even with low manpower it is possible, because this is an issue of human resource management and allocation of responsibilities,” said D’Souza, who believes the police force can innovate and bring in eight-hour shifts the way private corporations do. “The home ministry has to be more sensitive to this, because the police is the first door of entry for anyone who wants justice.”