It begins and ends with a ‘fatka’, a sharp rap on the hand that causes train passengers hanging on footboards to drop their cellphones onto the track below. The lucky ones are fortunate not to fall off speeding trains. But many sustain fatal or near-fatal injuries. The ‘fatka’ always strikes when a passenger least expects it and the thief who administers it remains invisible. Faced with rising incidents of such violent thefts, the police have decided to blend into the darkness just like the thieves, hoping to catch them red-handed.
While railway police personnel have always patrolled stretches of train tracks during all hours of the day, over the past month, they have stepped up their presence on the western suburban line, alarmed at the rising number of thefts. The police have christened these thieves ‘fatka’ gangs, simply because of the nature of their operation — climbing signal poles and waiting with bamboo poles for passengers in passing trains with cellphones held carelessly.
“We cannot stop passengers from standing on the footboard. So we have decided to increase our presence,” says Sunilkumar Jadhav, senior inspector, Bandra railway police station.
An analysis of theft complaints lodged at Bandra reveals most tend to take place after dark near the Mahim bridge, Mahim creek, the Gaiety-Galaxy cinema complex and Milan subway. “We have placed men in shifts at those spots accordingly,” Jadhav says.
Once darkness falls, at least eight men are deployed on both sides of the tracks and on the bridge built over the creek. The men head to their posts every evening wearing orange reflective jackets kitted with torches, insect repellent and mosquito spray. Seated quietly in the peripheries of the railway lines, none of the men are sent out alone. “It is not very safe after dark. There are snakes and lots of mosquitoes. The men spray jungle formula before heading out,” says Jadhav.
Constables manning the stretch of tracks near the creek have the toughest assignment, with some of them describing the stench as unbearable. Sub-Inspector P N Bhosle, who heads the detection squad, recalls the time he chased a group of thieves through the dense marsh. “As soon as we spotted them, they started pelting stones at us and ran into the mangroves. We chased them but could not find them. The only way we could have caught them is if we had surrounded all exits out of the mangroves,” he says.
The police have observed that the gangs tend to strike passengers travelling north in Harbour line trains which tend to slow down between Mahim and Bandra stations.
With the marshes providing unrestricted entry to thieves and a convenient escape route, shoring up that stretch is the Bandra GRP’s current top priority. “We need a concrete wall at least six foot high around the mangroves. Most of the thieves we catch come from the Garib Nagar slums on the city side. Once a wall comes up, thefts will reduce,” adds Jadhav.
Apart from its frequent letters to the Western Railway to build the wall, the police have also tried asking for lights to be installed on poles. “This will make the spots safer…, but motormen have complained that bright lights will distract them,” says Jadhav.
Jadhav says over 30 men have been arrested this year.