Polling for the Bihar Assembly elections is underway, bringing to close weeks of heated campaigning. One of the main planks on which the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) and its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party is fighting to be re-elected, is the improving law and order situation in the state. The incumbent National Democratic Alliance government has been impressing upon voters to choose Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, lest they want a return to the “goonda raj” of the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal era.

Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled Bihar from 1990 to 2005, towards the end through his wife Rabri Devi. Nitish Kumar has been the chief minister since 2005, except for a few months in 2014 when he stepped down following the Lok Sabha polls. The NDA claims that since Nitish Kumar has come to power, there has been a major improvement in the law and order situation. A fact check into these claims and a reading of the data proves that the picture is not as black and white.

Fact check

In September this year, armed with data from the 2018 National Crime Records Bureau data at hand, chief minister Nitish Kumar had made the following claims:

1) Bihar’s crime rate was at an average of 222.1 per lakh population, compared to the national average of over 300 per lakh population.
Fact: True. Bihar reported 262,815 of IPC (Indian Penal Code) & SLL (Special & Local Laws) cognizable crimes in 2018 with a crime rate of 222.1 against 383.5 in the whole country.

But the total crimes have also been steadily increasing with 189,696 and 236,055 crimes being reported in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Bihar Police data shows a steady increase since 2001.

2) Bihar ranked 23rd in the country in incidents of crime.
Fact: Misleading. When taking into account total cognizable crimes in absolute numbers i.e incidents of crime, Bihar is behind only six other states. It accounts for 5.2% of the crimes in the country. However, when it comes to crime rate i.e crimes per lakh of population, Bihar ranks much lower at 23.

It is important to note crime data is a measure of the number of cases registered by the police which often does not indicate the actual number of crimes. Many crimes like rapes and communal violence may not get reported or registered for a variety of reasons, says Umesh Kumar, sub-inspector at the State Crime Records Bureau. “The data is based on the FIR we upload,” he says. “If there is no FIR, then there is no record of it.”

Source: NCRB 2018, Created with Datawrapper

3) In Bihar, 60 % of crime is happening due to land disputes between family members.
Fact: False. The data only breaks down the number of murders according to motives and not any other crimes. There were 1,016 murders related to land disputes in Bihar in 2018. When compared with total murders in the state, it makes up 34.6%. When compared with total cognizable crimes in the state, even if IPC and SLL crimes are taken separately, it is a negligible amount.

However, 44 people were murdered in the state over water disputes, the highest in the country.

4) Bihar ranks 29th in the country in crimes against women, 33rd in rapes, 23rd in kidnapping and 11th in murder.
Fact: Partly true. However, all these ranks are based on crime rates rather than the number of incidents. In the rate of kidnapping and abductions, Bihar in fact did better than what was claimed and ranks 15.

When it comes to absolute numbers, only seven other states did worse than Bihar in the crimes against women category. Nearly half the country is doing better than Bihar when it comes to numbers of rapes. Bihar ranks third in kidnapping and abductions and second in the number of murders.

Source: NCRB 2018. Created with Datawrapper

But it is interesting to note that the opposition in Bihar also cites data to argue that crime is worsening. RJD spokesman Nawal Kishore has used the Bihar Police data to argue that.

5) Crimes in the state rose by 42% last year compared to 2016. Murders have correspondingly risen by 20% from 2,581 in 2016 to 3,138 last year. Rapes have risen almost 44% from 1,008 in 2016 to 1,450 last year.
Fact: True. But when compared with NCRB there are some discrepancies in the Bihar Police data (available from 2001 onwards) which shows murders holding steady through the years except for a dip in 2016.

An uneven performance

According to NCRB, the absolute number of murders steadily increased through the 90s and started to fall from an all-time high of 5,356 in 2000 to 3,138 in 2019. A decline that started during the RJD tenure and continued into the Nitish-era. Taking purely Nitish Kumar’s rule, between 2005 and 2019 there was a 9.5% drop in murders, according to NCRB.

Between 2005 and 2019, attempted murder cases rose by 125% and kidnapping and abductions rose by nearly 300%, according to NCRB. Regarding cases of kidnapping, however, a majority of the cases are related to women and girls i.e families filing cases against elopement, according to Kumar at the State Crime Records Bureau.

Here, Bihar Police’s breakdown that shows kidnapping for ransom is a better marker for the incidence of crime. According to this, there were only 43 kidnappings for money in 2019, an 82.8% fall from 2005.

There was a steady decrease in rapes which fell by 36%. Dacoity fell steeply by 67% while rioting and robberies have been fluctuating.

The police have also been arresting 52% more criminals since 2005 while the number of police encounters with criminals and criminals killed in these encounters has been dropping.

At the same time, the Status of Policing in India report from 2018 says that 42.9% people surveyed in Bihar say the police is hampered by political interference. While 49.6% are strongly sympathetic towards the police, more than one-fifth of the people surveyed had a negative perception of them.

The sanctioned strength of armed and civil police has grown from 86,801 in 2005 to 1,40,674 in 2019, a 62% increase. However, 54,035 of these positions remain vacant. Bihar has the highest population per police among the states at 759.59. There are only 131.65 police personnel serving per lakh of the state population. There are 0.62 police per square kilometre.

The whole picture

These numbers should be read alongside some perspective from the ground. RK Kanth, who runs a security agency in Patna, says the general perception is that the law and order situation has improved since Nitish Kumar came to power. “While it has been good overall, he did better work in his first term between 2005 and 2010,” he said. “Public satisfaction in this aspect has not been as high since he was reelected.”

And herein lies Nitish Kumar’s conundrum. While in public opinion, he might score better than Lalu Prasad Yadav, his real competition is himself. “The law and order in his first tenure was visibly better than the previous years but he was not able to ensure this USP in the next terms,” says Professor DM Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences in Patna. “Law and order during these recent years are not bad but they are not better either. People expected improvement and the government could not fulfil that.”

Also, the prohibition that was introduced in Bihar in 2016 by Nitish Kumar had opened up a lucrative criminal enterprise – liquor smuggling. “Every day there is news of liquor being seized,” says Diwakar. “Liquor trafficking is rampant.”

“If you go to the villages, the affluent people get liquor delivered to their doorstep,” he said. “It is a huge operation. The person who was snatching chains previously has probably now been absorbed into the liquor trade.” The criminals have not disappeared, they have simply shifted gears.

This article first appeared on FackChecker.in, a publication of the data-driven public-interest journalism non-profit IndiaSpend.