On Thursday night, around 11.20 pm, Kishan Kushwaha was busy attending to his customers — handing them snacks and soft drinks which he sells from his handcart on platform number 1 of Surat railway station — when he heard gunshots, and saw a man firing at a youth from behind, near the B2 coach of Ranakpur Express that had arrived at the station just minutes ago. The sound did not attract much attention of the crowd as it got drowned in the commotion of the arriving passengers and the blaring voice of the public announcement system. But the sight of a man with a bleeding stomach shocked passersby. After the assailant, accompanied by his aide, fled, policemen reached the spot and took the victim to a hospital.
Government Railway Police of Surat station, later, termed the shootout at platform number 1 a result of inter-gang rivalry. They said that 26-year-old Yusuf Khan, a local gangster, was shot at by Sarfaraz Shaikh, a member of rival gang, moments after he alighted from the general coach of the Mumbai-Bikaner Ranakpur Express.
Shaikh was arrested from Vadodara on Saturday. His accomplice is still on the run. The police investigation has still not established whether Shaikh and his accomplice were on the same train as Khan, or they got inside the Surat platform with the gun and then took a train to Vadodara. There is another version that after learning about Khan’s arrival in Surat from Mumbai on Ranakpur Express, Shaikh boarded the train at Navsari.
The incident, however, raises serious questions on the security of the Surat railway station, which is slated to become one of the three stations in the country, after Habibganj and Gandhinagar, to get a makeover into a multi-modal transport hub, facilitating the passengers with a nodal point for accessing several modes of transport.
Trains are usually manned by Railway Ministry’s Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel, a cadre entrusted with protecting railway passengers, passenger area and railway property with the power to arrest, investigate and prosecute criminals. They are meant to act as a bridge between the Government Railway Police (GRP), which is the ground force under the state government and the local police.
“I was also shocked. For the first time in my life, I saw a shootout happening in front of my eyes. After attending to my customers, I moved out to a safe distance to protect myself suspecting that the shooters might fire more rounds of bullets,” said 40-year-old Kushwaha. His fears were not unfounded. One of the four bullets pumped by Shaikh had missed the target and could have hit anyone else. Fortunately, it did not hit anyone and was found by the investigating police team from the crime scene.
On Saturday, Kushwaha had placed his cart some 10 feet from the parked train on the platform.
Surat is one of the busiest railway stations in the country, catering to its huge migrant population that comes from as far away as Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. As per Railway Ministry’s estimate, in a day, around 200 trains pass through the station with around 1.5 lakh footfall — all owing to the presence of textile, diamond and embroidery hubs, which are powered by the migrants.
The railway station has three gates — two gates on west side towards Mahidharpura for separate entry and exit, and one gate towards Varachha area that acts as both the entry and exit point. However, the boundary walls of the station premises are broken at several points, giving access to unwanted people.
“There are eight entry and exit points at Surat railway station, out of which four have broken walls and anybody could access the platforms. We have also put up proposals to build boundary wall along the railway tracks from Udhna to Tapi river, which is five kilometres, so that no unauthorised people can enter into the railway premises. The proposal has been approved, and the work will start soon,” said Ashok Jadav, Chief Commercial Inspector of Surat Railway station.
Sources in the railways said that since the announcement last December to make Surat station a multi-modal transport hub, no development work has been carried out at the station. Work on the Rs 5,000-crore project is set to begin this year. Though Jadav claimed that 54 CCTV cameras are installed at various locations in the station, and 90 more will be set up in coming days, the station lacks the basic luggage bag scanner machines and metal detector gates. “We have got the approval for luggage bag scanner machines and they will installed soon,” he added.
According to him, 83 personnel of Railway Protection Force (RPF), ranking from constable to inspector, are posted at the station for security purpose. “They work in different shifts at different locations. We have no space for setting up an office on the platform. Our office is on the second floor of the railway building, and our policemen usually patrol the platforms. We have sent a proposal to provide for an office space for the RPF on platform number 1, so that our patrolling staff can take a break and rest,” Jadav told The Indian Express.
However, according to Surat GRP Inspector M S Bodar, it is difficult to man the station with the given number of security personnel. “The boundary walls are seen broken at several places, from where unwanted people enter… We have a limited number of staff… For security, apart from manpower, the railway authorities should look more into using latest technology security devices. We have hand-held metal detectors that our staff use during any programe at the station. But daily, over 1.50 lakh people enter and leave the station. How could each and every individual be frisked,” said Bodar.
“I have visited railway stations of Mumbai, Delhi and other places and found that high-tech security systems are used there, and they are giving best results. Here we don’t have any latest technology equipment,” he rued.
In addition to such teething security infrastructure issues, there is another nagging problem — the dispute over authority between the state government’s GRP and Railway Ministry’s RPF — that many times lead to confusion over the respective forces’ role and jurisdiction.
RPF Inspector Ishwar Yadav, whose Quick Response Team was the first to reach platform number 1 on Thursday night following the shootout and was instrumental in saving the life of Khan, is unhappy that his powers are limited. “We give more preference to the safety of passengers and railway properties, and for that our teams patrol the railway premises. But our powers are limited, and if we find any suspicious activity, we catch the suspects and hand them over to the GRP,” Yadav said, citing their helplessness to bring the criminals to book.
“Although the incident took place in railway premises, we are not bound to investigate or register police complaint,” he added. But according to GRP inspector Bodar, the system works fine. “The RPF has the power to act as per the Railway Act, and they cannot prosecute or investigate into any crime which deals with IPC and CrPc. While GRP has got the power to deal with any crime related to IPC and CrPc, RPF functioning is related to railway property damage, theft and patrol on trains, and catch those carrying out illegal activities and black marketing of tickets,” he added.
However, the Thursday night shootout has alarmed the security forces here, since it was the first such incident on a railway platform not only in Surat but also in the state, in the last several decades.