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Saturday, December 07, 2019

Unsafe streets: Capital on edge, police on back foot

Back-to-back snatching cases, mostly targeting women, have put the capital on edge and police on the back foot. But with criminals out on bail within months, the answer may lie in diligent beat patrolling and more stringent laws.

Written by Mahender Singh Manral | New Delhi | Updated: September 30, 2019 8:14:36 am
chain snatching in delhi, delhi chain snatching incidents, delhi police, delhi city news Delhi Police initially lodged an e-FIR of theft as Kanwar was apprehensive of filing a case, but once the footage went viral and outrage grew, more stringent sections of robbery were added three days later.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, 53-year-old Shobha Kanwar was dragged on the road for around 30 metres by two bikers who tried to snatch her bag. CCTV footage of the incident showed Kanwar being dragged on the Janakpuri main road as she tried to cling to her handbag. The incident left her with injuries on her knees, hands, waist and face.

Delhi Police initially lodged an e-FIR of theft as Kanwar was apprehensive of filing a case, but once the footage went viral and outrage grew, more stringent sections of robbery were added three days later. Within 12 days, both the accused were arrested. And within four months, they were out on bail.

This case, one of over 4,500 snatching incidents reported in the capital so far this year, is emblematic of a larger crisis that has sent alarm bells ringing in the Delhi Police ranks, and kept the city on edge.

Delhi Police’s own data is testimony to the challenge they’re up against: Till September 15 this year, 4,516 cases of snatching, from phones to handbags to chains, were reported — an average of 530 cases a month. The figure for all 12 months of 2018 was 4,707 — roughly 390 cases a month. In six districts, cases reported with the police this year have already exceeded the number of FIRs filed last year.

This September has seen a spate of snatching cases across the city — an ANI reporter was hospitalised after two bike-borne men snatched her phone and dragged her out of a moving auto in C R Park; in Sadar Bazar, a woman almost came under a car when a man on a bike snatched her phone; and a 27-year-old Brazilian woman received injuries after her bag was snatched in GK II.

Delhi Police spokesperson DCP Mandeep Singh Randhawa said that “before this month, street crimes were under control, but this month, several unfortunate incidents took place”. “We reacted immediately and took preventive measures — we have solved most cases and are working round-the-clock to solve the others,” he said.

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Current and former officials The Indian Express spoke to suggested several reasons why there’s no let-up in incidents of snatching: The punishment for the crime not being harsh enough; a lack of focus on beat policing; and a system of filing e-FIRs that “indirectly help the accused”.

Drawing inspiration

To understand how the menace can be tackled, one needn’t look beyond neighbouring Haryana.

In October 2015, the state added clauses 379-A and 379-B to IPC Section 379 (punishment for theft), in a bid to make the law against snatching more stringent. Under IPC 379-A (snatching), a convict will be punished with rigorous imprisonment for not less than five years along with a fine of Rs 25,000. The first conviction under this happened in April 2016, when a Gurgaon court sentenced a 22-year-old man to five-year imprisonment and a Rs 25,000 fine for snatching a smartphone. “Since snatching became a non-bailable offence in 2015 in Haryana, we’ve seen some change on the ground. It has impacted the minds of criminals, who don’t look at it as just a petty crime anymore,” said Navdeep Singh Virk, ADGP (Law and Order), Haryana.

Haryana Police registered 1,700 cases of snatching from January to August, 2018; and 1,422 cases in the same period this year. “There are many repeat offenders in crimes such as snatching because it’s easy to do… In any lane, you will find people walking with phones or bags or wearing chains. This doesn’t require a lot of preparation or even a gang. It’s a crime of opportunity, mostly committed by jobless and frustrated youth,” Virk said.

Delhi Police Commissioner Amulya Patnaik told The Indian Express that his force, too, has made a similar proposal, which is yet to see the light of day. “We have made a proposal to make the law stringent and sent it to the Delhi government. We are following it up and waiting for their approval,” he said.

A Delhi government spokesperson said the matter is sub judice: “The Delhi High Court is seized of the matter as the proposal was challenged by an individual.”

This, the country’s first woman IPS officer Kiran Bedi said, “will certainly help” — but it won’t solve the problem. “Any law has to be backed up by systematic, planned crime-prevention methods — from regular verification of criminals to beat policing. Tracking those with criminal records to find out what they are doing now, through an intensive beat patrolling system on a daily basis, is required,” she said.

The snatcher’s diary

The Indian Express met four men who have been arrested by Delhi Police on charges of snatching, some of them several times, only to secure bail within months. Snatching, all of them said, was the easiest way to make a quick buck.

“I couldn’t land a job, so I took up snatching to pay for drugs and buy gifts for my girlfriend. Every day, I would leave home around 7.15 am and look for people wearing gold chains. I had stolen a fast bike and would roam around on routes women took to the temple or office. I can easily figure if the jewellery is artificial or genuine, since most of the time, real jewellery is not as fancy. We’d usually target just one person and then rush back home,” said the 26-year-old, who lives in Outer Delhi.

Asked how he disposed of stolen goods, the man said there are two ways: Strike a deal with a jeweller or ask a wife or girlfriend to sell the stolen jewellery by pretending its hers.

Another accused (22) spoke about consuming “pills” before heading out for a crime, so he would feel “fearless”.

“Usually a person in an autorickshaw or car follows our bike so he can come to our aid if we run into trouble. For instance, if we fall while trying to escape, they would pick us up. And if we’re arrested, we rely on our gang’s advocates. They have ways of making sure victims turn hostile in court. If you offer someone more than what they’ve lost, sometimes they agree to drop the case instead of going through lengthy court proceedings,” he said.

Another said they snatched only mobile phones, “sometimes two-three a day, which we would sell for Rs 5,000-8,000 each”.

Especially startling is the police dossier of a 31-year-old repeat offender, who has 63 cases against him from 2007 to 2014. The dossier mentions that he mostly does “chain snatching” with “an associate” on a motorcycle, and that his weakness is “Kingfisher beer, Gold Flake cigarette”.

Just last week, the Delhi Police Special Cell arrested three men on charges of snatching who, during questioning, disclosed that they had committed over 50 such crimes in Delhi within a month. But a quick check with the police station concerned suggested only a handful of FIRs had been registered. This, an officer explained, was because a large number of such incidents go unreported. Moreover, to escape police scrutiny and harsh punishment, gangs often recruit juveniles or first-time criminals, whom police lack data on.

Need for change

Once a snatcher is caught, a case is usually registered under IPC sections 356 (criminal force during theft) and 379 (theft). Under section 379, punishment ranges from a fine to a maximum of three years in prison, while for section 356, the punishment is a maximum of two years in jail. The accused are usually let out on bail on a cash surety of around Rs 10,000.

To curb this, former police chief B S Bassi, during his stint, had directed all personnel to also invoke the harsher section of robbery (IPC 392) in incidents of snatching. A retired CP-rank officer who worked with Bassi said: “We observed that snatchers would often misuse the law and get out on bail if we failed to make any recovery. We decided to book them under more stringent sections so they wouldn’t get bail easily.”

Senior advocate Vikas Pahwa suggested this was the right approach: “Snatching by force is actually an offence of robbery, punishable with imprisonment of 10 years or life under IPC Section 392/394, depending on the type of force applied.”

Senior officers also stressed on the need for another systemic change. Former DCP L N Rao, who worked in the police force for more than three decades, said, “Nowadays, Delhi Police is playing the game of figures by not lodging proper FIRs. People are reporting the matter, but indirectly helping the accused by registering e-FIRs. The system of e-FIRs was launched for motor vehicle theft or property theft, not for snatching. They are misusing the law by lodging e-FIRs for snatching; such cases will be prevented only if they start lodging cases under proper sections. If they lodge all cases properly, the accused will be booked in multiple cases and they will face problems while seeking bail.”

According to Delhi Police data, the number of e-FIRs filed in cases of theft, which also covers incidents of snatching, has gradually increased since 2016, when the option was first introduced. While 67,230 e-FIRs for theft were filed that year, the number jumped to 1,10,398 in 2017. In 2018, that figure stood at 1,33,920, and till August 31 this year, the number had already touched 1,22,999.

The 65-year-old wife of a retired Army personnel, who was targeted by two snatchers on a bike on July 2 this year, claimed she had been pressured into filing an e-FIR. According to the victim, Maya Yadav, the men snatched her purse right outside her house in Laxmi Nagar as she was ringing the doorbell after returning from the market. Inside her purse was Rs 7,000, keys and some cards. Police initially lodged an e-FIR of theft, but added sections of robbery as CCTV footage of the incident spread.

“My husband called police and they recorded my statement. But they stressed on writing that the bikers had stolen my purse. I requested them to change the contents of the complaint, but they pressured me to cooperate. They eventually lodged an e-FIR of theft, wherein they wrote that someone had stolen my wallet,” she recalled.

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