Every working day since the last one year, Railway Police Constable M K Birajdar has set out from his home in Ghatkopar with a list of people he needs to track down by nightfall. When addresses are incomplete and phone numbers not in operation, he has to turn to other sources to locate his targets. But Birajdar is not a police detective in the conventional sense. He is one among the Mumbai Railway Police department’s many restorers of long-forgotten stolen valuables.
On Monday, Birajdar sent a text message to Police Commissioner Ravindra Sengaonkar, summing up what the past year has been like. Of the 180 people to whom he has returned stolen mobile phones, cash and gold jewellery, Birajdar chose to write about a woman he had tracked down with much difficulty in a Colaba slum last December.
The housewife, Smita More, was returning to Mumbai from Ratnagiri in 2016 and was seated by a train window when a thief snatched her necklace near Diva railway station. Three months later, the Thane railway police caught the thief and recovered More’s necklace. In the intervening period, More had made two visits to the police station to enquire about her necklace. But when the police tried to contact her, they found that she had changed her phone number. Her home address was vague and listed a neighbour, named Jadhav, as a landmark.
Birajdar started his enquiries at gas agencies in Colaba only to find many people named More and Jadhav lived in the slum. “I started looking for her at 11 am and finally located her at 3 pm after meeting many other Mores and Jadhavs,” he said.
More, who was nine months pregnant at that time, had spent the last three years being blamed for the theft. “Her husband and mother-in-law used to constantly tell her that if she hadn’t been wearing the necklace it wouldn’t have been stolen. More told me later that had the police not found her necklace, she would have to keep hearing those taunts for as long as she lived,” Birajdar said.
Apart from visiting homes of complainants, the Railway Police also files applications for the release of their belongings on their behalf, sparing citizens several tedious trips. Mobile phones and cheques equivalent to the recovered cash are delivered in person after policemen verify the identities of the owners. The police either transfer the money online or courier the cheques to citizens who live in other states.
To More, the return of her necklace meant everything. “The family lives in a 10-foot by 10-foot house. The gold necklace is worth so much more to them now,” he said.
Following a court procedure, delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown, More finally collected her necklace from the Thane railway police station last week. Birajdar has a picture of that moment, as he does of each of the previous 179 occasions. Those pictures are part of a collage of surprised and relieved citizens pasted on a wall inside the police station. It is for these moments that Birajdar, now 37, said that he joined the police force 19 years ago.
Not all of his calls have been so straight forward. An IT engineer in Bengaluru, who had lost a wallet containing Rs 100, had initially refused to give Birajdar his bank details fearing an online fraud. Then there was a man in Kalyan who treated news that Rs 16,000 stolen from him three years ago had been recovered as a bad joke. “We sent him a picture of the cheque and details noted in our property register. He went to the police station near his home to verify whether or not we were telling the truth,” said Birajdar.
Birjadar and his colleagues have now returned valuables to 1,200 people, having started out a year ago with 1,900 items in the police station’s storage room. “It is not an easy job. Most days I don’t find every address on my list and have to spend some money from my own pocket to travel all over Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan and Bhiwandi. But the reward is seeing the smiles on the faces of people when I return their belongings. That is why I volunteered for this job,” he said.
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