Extortionists in West Bengal have innovated a way of making money,encouraged by the expansion of the mobile phone network into remoter and remoter areas.
They have been capturing mobile towers and holding them hostage until they have been paid a ransom by the service providers that operate them. And such captures have been easy because those involved,invariably workers of political parties,have forced security agencies to hire their men as armed guards on the towers.
The racket has been flourishing in remote areas of South Bengal,where hopes of police protection are usually futile. Data collected from a company maintaining such towers in East Midnapore show the towers of various service providers were switched off for a cumulaive 49,34,20 and 36 hours in the four months till December. Most of these hours were allegedly when cadres had captured the towers.
The records of another company,which is responsible for the maintenance and security of mobile towers of Vodafone,Airtel and Idea in West Midnapore,show that towers there were switched off for a cumulative 27 and 31 hours respectively in November and December.
The police are aware of the racket but rarely,if ever,receive a complaint. This is a serious problem, said Ashok Prasad,SP,East Midnapore. We [recently received a complaint from a security agency hired by a mobile service provider. We have started a case. In most cases,security agencies hesitate to lodge a complaint.
Police officials say the racket is so lucrative that many group clashes in these areas now revolve around who controls which tower.
An official with a service provider,who is looking after its work in the region but who preferred not to be named,said: Logistics [are against the service providers and subscribers. Non-compliance with the demands leads to the towers being switched off,which results in disruption. Service providers lose out on business,subscribers suffer from no network.
And an official of an agency working on maintenance and security said: We are forced to recruit party activists as guards and technical staff though they have no training. For every tower,we need three security guards and they are recruited through the party that is strong in a particular area. Their demands range from recruiting their cadres to extortion of money, said the official.
Such recruitment has led to another racket coming up on the side. The recruits have been selling a portion of the fuel they are supplied for running generators,alleged the company official. Normally,we supply 56 litres of diesel a day to a tower site. Everyday,our calculations show a mismatch of at least 10 litres that we cannot account for.
In East Midnapore,a Trinamool Congress stronghold,senior party leaders allegedly control the racket. In West Midnapore,too,the CPM has ceded ground to the Trinamool. Most of the towers have been captured by Trinamool men,who have split into several factions over sharing of profits. Most of the infighting is over control of towers, a party MLA admitted.
Everyday I receive complaints… Company officials and service providers cannot go to police as police officials are involved in this racket, alleged Union minister Sisir Adhikari,of the Trinamool. We have our people working in the towers. But sometimes they get angry when they are not paid salary on time.
In Birbhum,a senior leader of INTTUC (the Trinamool trade union) said,There are 335 towers in Birbhum,of which 250 are under our control; our people work there, he said. We insisted that guards who work for eight hours be paid Rs 5,000 rather than the earlier Rs 4,500. Since we ensured the increase in salary,we have been getting more people joining our union.