More than half the crimes in Mumbai and New Delhi go unreported, and police in those cities refuse to register most complaints of sexual harassment, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
A public survey in the two cities showed that sexual harassment of women was the third most common crime, but most people who did not report it said they did not want to be caught up in bureaucracy or did not believe the police could help.
“It is virtually impossible to know the true extent of how much crime is not reported due to police refusal to register complaints, but anecdotally, the problem appears widespread,” Abhijit Sarkar and Dripto Mukhopadhyay wrote in the CHRI report released on Wednesday.
“The survey points to a significant proportion of unaddressed and unresolved crime, signalling worrying levels of insecurity among the public, particularly women,” they said.
Crimes against women remain largely under-reported in India, activists say, despite several gang rapes in recent years that triggered nationwide protests and led to stricter legislation. There were 337,922 crimes against women in 2014, according to official data.
The CHRI survey of more than 3,000 households in Delhi and 3,575 in Mumbai was conducted in August and asked households to recall their experiences in the preceding 12-month period.
Those surveyed reported to the police only one in every 13 cases of sexual harassment in Delhi and one in nine in Mumbai. No First Information Reports, or complaints, were filed with the police in Delhi, and only two were filed in Mumbai.
That compares with FIRs filed for 37 percent of reported mobile phone thefts in Delhi and 45 percent in Mumbai, it said.
“We take complaints of crime very seriously, and we do all that we can to file FIRs quickly,” said a spokesman for the Mumbai police, rejecting the findings of the survey.
“You can see from the official numbers that more and more cases are being reported to the police.”
No comment was immediately available from the Delhi police.
As part of efforts to tighten legislation following the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in a moving bus in Delhi, the refusal to register complaints of certain crimes against women was made a punishable offence in 2013.
The conviction rate for crimes against women was just over 21 percent in 2014, official data show.
“There is an urgent need for police departments to address the long-standing obstructions and violations by police in registering FIRs,” Sarkar and Mukhopadhyay wrote.
“Preventing, refusing, and delaying FIR registration impedes access to justice at the very beginning,” they added.
To give women greater confidence in reporting such cases, NGOs could be involved in raising awareness and in training the police to be more sensitive to gender issues, they said.
Earlier this week, the telecommunications ministry said all mobile phones sold in India from January 2017 must have a panic button to enable the user to call for help. From January 2018, all mobile phones must also have a built-in global positioning system (GPS) to make the user safer.
“There are certainly initiatives to address (lack of reporting), through technology inputs for instance,” the CHRI report said. “But the root of the problem is lack of accountability.”