The threat of a terror attack may guide the city’s security protocol, but there is one street crime that continues to fluster investigators. Meghna Yelluru, Rohit Alok, Sandali Tiwari, Krishna Uppuluri and Bhagyashree Narkar profile chain-snatching, a crime dictated by speed and and the ‘need’ to make a quick buck.
The sudden and shrill screech of a bike’s brakes is often the last traumatic memory for the victims. And it is considered the fastest crime executed on Mumbai’s streets, finished in a fraction of a minute. If investigators are to be believed, it is simply a game of reflex, between the one chasing and the quarry.
With little investment apart from agility, tact and a bike to boot, chain-snatching continues to be the most difficult crime to crack for the Mumbai Police.
In 2013 alone, the total value of property stolen across the city was over Rs 13 crore. Only 793 of the over 2,000 cases could be detected — with less than Rs 2 crore recovered.
Easy money, police have concluded, is the motive.
A study by Mumbai Police in 2013 found that none of the gold mangalsutras, the common target of chain-snatchers, weigh less than three tolah (11.63 gram). “Instant money is very attractive. A chain-snatcher can earn anywhere between Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh in one snatch,” says Additional Commissioner of Police Quaiser Khalid. The rising gold prices have made it most lucrative. In the last five years, steep prices (it stood at Rs 19,368 for 10 grams in 2009, compared to over Rs 30,000 last year) and a black market for the yellow metal make it the most tempting crime, say cops.
Compared to this, the policing statistic of one cop for every 200 Mumbaikars, explains Pravin Sawant, Assistant Inspector at Matunga police station, skews the equation in favour of the snatchers. So while police look to reinvent the wheel, the crime remains mostly a “game of wits”.
“The offenders are mostly always on the bike,” says Inspector Sandeep Bhagdikar of Gamdevi police station. While there is no “specific type”, officers say a pillion is trained to snatch, with the rider usually the one who knows the exits, if not the entire roadmap.
“Their hands have a good grip, and their upper torso is agile, making it easier for them to snatch, and balance their form, even as the tyres complete several revolutions per minute,” says a detection officer from Matunga Police station. The officer has profiled snatchers, and discovered that many often travelled with a college bag, and a cap and attire to match.
And mostly, they use traffic discipline to their safety. “They are always hiding behind helmets,” rues Bhagdikar. Deception is their best strategy, as they wear layers of clothes, often changing them on the run, cheating the wireless relayed by a trailing mobile van.
Their number plates also tell a different story. The Traffic Police studies submissions, which include rubbing number plates with mud, sealing it with double layer of plastic and often getting the font size smaller and italicised to enjoy a blurry escape, says Additional Commissioner of Police, Brijesh Singh, adding “the pillion always has a cap”.
While offenders constantly improvise on routes and targets, they never compromise on the bikes. “The bikes usually are those that have higher engine cylinder volume. Most are modern and modified to commit only such kind of crimes. We seized a bike where (leg) gears were substituted with switches in the bike’s handles, ensuring the entire control is restricted to the biker’s hand, leaving his feet free. Even the accelerator action was shifted to the handles. Bikes of four strokes are upgraded to five strokes,” says Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Zone XII, Balsingh Rajput.
“Some also modify the four stroke bikes to their advantage by doing away with the element of a carburettor, hence, resulting in the bike’s engine to perform quicker and allowing the two-wheeler to rev to high speeds on second and third gears,” said a police official from Thane police station.
“They are always, absolutely on the run,” explains Milind Bharambe, Additional Commissioner of Police, West region. “They chain-snatch once and then move on to the other, and then the third and fourth, and go on until the police respond,” he added. Police records point to habitual offenders, including a group of Iranian refugees, who have settled in the northern suburbs, mostly in Thane district. They enter city limits, snatch and use the exits before the patrolling tightens.
Officials in Chunabhatti police station lament that in most cases, grainy CCTV footage from commercial establishments makes it difficult to profile the accused. And in 60 per cent of cases, the number plates caught on camera were fake, proving that the vehicles were stolen.
Interrogation of most snatchers showed that they spend the “dry hours” between two snatches, in studying the cameras on route, the quality of roads, and general public alertness. Recently, a patrolling police vehicle in Andheri caught a buddy pair (rider and pillion), riding a bike in a strange manner on an empty road. The pillion was spotted holding onto the waist of the rider but swivelling his body to the left and right constantly. In Matunga, one buddy pair even confessed to have got a packet of dry mud to smoothen a curve after the civic officials failed to clear the road. “They said the bike skidded twice, so they ensured that they did a quick fix,” said an officer from the Matunga police station.
Separate studies done across the city, meanwhile, point to the risk pattern, with the “period most vulnerable” deciding the crime. “Most snatches took place in the morning, between 5 am and 9 am. They target joggers. The victims usually cannot give a good chase as they are already fatigued,” says Khalid.
Wedding venues are the most preferred crime spot, with more than one buddy pair prowling outside. Gender profile, says police, points that men usually are not targeted. The city’s crime statistics confirm this assumption as spaces like Port Zone, Wadala Truck Terminus, and Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) show zero incidents parallel to the almost zero floating women population. A central patch like Zone V has working women as the most targeted. Statements revealed that most worked in corporate pockets in Lower Parel, and were waiting for a public transport at the time of attack. According to Baburao Gavit, senior inspector, Sion police station, most victims he questioned were speaking on their cellphones when the incident occurred. Interestingly, at the time of the attack, their bodies were exposed to the road, and the handset was always held in the hand which didn’t obstruct a snatcher coming from the opposite end.
But not everyone can be a target. “Old women or ladies walking alone on a street are often the targets,” explains Bharambe.
“They never attack directly. Considerable watch has taken shape before they go for the kill,” added assistant inspector Madhukar Chowdhary, NM Joshi Marg police station.
In Mumbai’s central region, in pockets between Parel and Matunga, police made a unique observation. The manner in which a woman drapes a saree could make her vulnerable. Additional Commissioner of Police, Praveen Salunkhe, says that in most cases, the women targeted inside city limits were those who drape their saree on their left shoulder, unlike women from north-western states who wear it on their right.
The police have also marked the spots prone to attacks based on demographics and interaction parameters. In Andheri (East), JB Nagar is one such example. The attacks are mostly around the period when there is a change in shift of patrolling officers, showing the level of recce conducted by snatchers. “Before the change of shift, there is a certain amount of slackness that creeps in. It always proves disastrous,” said Assistant Police Inspector Amol Bhagat, a detection officer at Andheri police station.
It’s also no longer a crime of the novice. Malan Gangawade (55), a house-help, replaced her gold mangalsutra for an imitation, after she heard of incidents of snatching. One November morning turned difficult, when two bikers stopped near her, asking for directions. “Suddenly, the pillion snatched my chain and they drove off. I stood there stunned. Minutes later, the bikers returned to the same spot, slapped me on my face and threw back my chain. They warned me not to wear a fake the next time,” she recalls.
Inspector Machhindra Pandit, BKC police station, claims that many accused have confessed to chain-snatching to fund their addiction to drugs and alcohol. “Not all of them are from poor households,” he added. “Few of those caught between the ages of 18 and 28 use this mode to maintain a lifestyle,” he said, adding that confessional statements have seen words like “pocket money” as the motive.
He says many were imitating bike moves from movies and “the adventurous kinds consider it to be a rather daring thing to do”. Pandit, who was recently transferred from Navi Mumbai, says the model the satellite town’s police machinery adopted is to have one constable tail a set of known names and “it worked”.
Locals, for obvious terrain reasons, are the most affected. The police study indicates that traditional natives like Kolis and Saraswat Brahmins have been profiled as the most attacked, along with other Maharashtrian community as they usually wear thick heirloom necklaces, often tied at the back with a thread, unlike others who wear chains which have the metal itself locking. Also those living along the highways, especially Western Expressway between Malad and Dahisar, with 15 flyovers, have been targets of this organised crime as areas around long, linear roads provide smoother and faster exits.
The incline of a flyover is a favourite target of chain-snatchers, the reason being that a three-wheeler’s speed considerably reduces when it ascends a flyover. The women travelling on them become sitting ducks for thieves, who steal and speed away.
While material loss is significant, it is the trauma that mostly turns into fear psychosis, affecting the city’s social and safety perception. A neighbourhood in Dahisar has conditioned itself to the menace, with women grooming their public outings to limited needs. Madhu Kelan from the Ashok Wadi locality, shares an assault account of a 16-year-old neighbour returning from school, whose alertness was the only asset that helped foil the attempt. In many instances, a snatcher has not hesitated in tearing off the clothes, where the valuable was pinned to the clothing.
The victim profile also opens up a good analysis. Police state that in most cases, the reflexes are hindered due to the shock that creeps in. Statements studied by police show that most vulnerable are those whose body language indicates stress or anxiety.
“I still remember his face, and those seconds frame-by-frame,” recalls Sarita Sahani (52), who was attacked in March 2013. She was on her way to supervise a college exam at around 8.30 am.
“The rider was wearing a helmet but the pillion’s face is still clear in my head. The two first slowly approached me from behind. They went ahead and took a turn and approached me from the front. I resisted by bending backward and forward, throwing the men off-balance. I still live with the trauma,” says Sahani. The 120 gram gold chain broke into three pieces, and so did her confidence in public safety. She has stopped wearing jewellery.
Another policing factoid points to lack of “eyes on the street” concept. Prakash Rane, Senior Inspector, Vile Parle, says most old residential settlements do not deploy watchmen, resulting in lesser road supervision and fewer witnesses during trial. Infrastructure also plays a role, with road widening in many places exposing pedestrians to open roads. Chandrakant Rane, senior inspector, Govandi police station, says the two chain-snatchings registered in January 2014, outside the railway station were specifically at spots where footpaths had been dug up.
In 2009, when a woman walked into Owais Shah’s jewellery shop in Borivali, it was a rare request to shape a mangalsutra into a bracelet. “That order is now a trend,” says Shah. While people have devised their own measures, police, too, have begun experimenting.
Nakabandis have given the police more options to profile bikers for potential chain-snatchers. Beat officers have their eyes peeled, especially for bikers wearing two shirts. In Zone V, which comprises Dadar, Mahim, Dharavi and Kurla, the police have systematically stepped up vigil at tea stalls, where motorists are known to stop during their commute. “Throughout the day, a lot of bikers stop at tea stalls. We receive information on several occasions that chain-snatchers have stopped at these stalls a few minutes after committing a crime,” said Dhananjay Kulkarni, DCP (Zone V). Since 2013, Kulkarni has instructed officers to note down details of bikers visiting tea stalls in their jurisdictions. The database now comprises licence numbers of thousands of bikers frequenting central Mumbai.
Sensitisation remains a major factor. The police use help of mahila mandals to educate women on precautionary measures. “We have asked jewellers to inform us if anything suspicious is spotted in sales, or if they get broken chains,” said a detection officer from Trombay police station. Many police personnel feel that they have not been able to sensitise jewellers effectively. “It is a two-way deal in which both parties are benefiting. Hence, sensitising them is a little difficult,” said Tamboli.
A lot of police personnel now have begun going covert on the field. In Nehru Nagar, a woman constable stood at a ‘vulnerable’ road for two hours, while in the eastern fringes of the city, the police deployment uses the ‘surprise’ model and changes the patrolling hours erratically.
“We apply defensive and aggressive measures,” says Bharambe. Defensive measures are inclusive of understanding the crime pattern and deploying manpower according to time, place and people on the street. Lone women are often trailed by officers in plain clothes in many regions.
DCP (Zone 1) Ravindra Shisve speaks of “operation all-out”, specifically designed around traffic signals and entry and exit points to scan for chain-snatchers.
In many cases, infrastructure has also proved to be an ally. For instance, in central suburbs, their bikes got stuck in delayed reconstruction work.
While criminals adopt new methods of attack, police say that they have to constantly study their patterns, mannerisms and techniques.
The Thane Police was the first to apply MCOCA against chain-snatching accused.
In 2012, the Thane Police booked 68 persons under Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) and arrested 22. The accused were booked in 92 cases of chain-snatching and 2,541 grams of gold worth Rs 7.47 lakh was recovered in a single seizure.
On October 25, 2012, the police sealed seven lockers and 185 accounts in the Kalyan branches of Canara Bank and Vijaya Bank. When on February 13, the police opened one of the lockers, they found 3.5 kg gold worth Rs 85 lakh and around Rs 50,000 cash. The police spent the best part of the day emptying the lockers and making a lengthy inventory.
Usually, a criminal is arrested under the Section 379 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Nowadays, every police station has been informed to prosecute a chain-snatcher under Section 392, which is for robbery, and entails a harsher punishment. South region has seen a decline in the number of cases of chain-snatching. “The cases of chain-snatching have gone down considerably in the south region primarily because the suspects were booked under Section 392,” said Krishna Prakash, Additional Commissioner of Police (South Region).