Exorbitant demands, threats and political pressure is transforming the festive air into one of fear for traders and businessmen.
While this time of the year should be full of joyous celebrations, for the shopkeepers in the city, it has unfortunately transformed into a time when they have to employ their negotiation skills with workers of Ganpati Mandals who land at their doorstep unannounced demanding ‘festival contribution’.
The incident in Bhosari, which happened earlier this month where employees of a bakery were allegedly abused, beaten up and forced to do sit-ups for refusing to pay the vargani is just an indicator of the kind of impunity and force that the volunteers of Ganpati Mandals use while collecting the funds.
Traders across the city, be it Kothrud, Shivajinagar, Hinjewadi, Hadapsar, Kondhwa, Yerwada, Pimpri or Chinchwad, told The Indian Express how they are “harassed” by those who collect vargani and are forced to pay exorbitant amounts despite resistance. Owners of makeshift roadside stalls and hawkers too aren’t left out and have to make their share of contribution, say traders.
Shop owners and representatives of the traders’ unions point out that the number of volunteers who land at their doorstep is increasing every year with some ruing that they have to pay funds to as many as 25 to 30 mandals every year. Those on the prominent locations say that they have to pay vargani to mandals located as far as five kilometres from their establishment.
“We are okay with mandals that we pay for traditionally. However, there are plenty of volunteers who turn up with a receipt book of a mandal we haven’t even heard of. They refuse to budge and sometimes show us fake receipts claiming that we had paid them last year. We don’t have any option but to pay them because, if refused, they issue veiled threats of retaliation. I remember, last year, my neighbour had refused vargani to a mandal. Next morning, he found that his sign board was completely smashed,” says an owner of a restaurant on F C Road, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to Umesh Zavar, President of Ravivar Peth Cloth Traders Association, most of the traders agree to pay up to the demands because of pressure of a dozen or more persons who turn up for “request donation”.
“How do you refuse a group of youngsters who storms into your shop in the evening — the busiest time from the customer’s point of view — and refuse to budge if you don’t pay them? Sometimes they are as many as 40-50 karyakartas. Only last night, members of a mandal had beaten up a tempo driver for little fault of his. This created fear among the shopkeepers as they have to operate in the same area,” said Zavar, adding, no individual raises his voice or even approaches police due to possibility of violence.
The police, shopkeepers feel, have done little to take stock of the situation despite repeated requests.
Ajit Sangle, executive president of Karve Road Traders’ Association, said that two years ago, the traders’ body had recommended the police to make a rule that not more than two mandal karyakartas would visit shops to request contribution. The suggestion, which he feels could have worked well, was not taken up by the police.
“What you see today is that 20 to 40 karyakartas of a mandal turn up at a shop demanding exorbitant contribution. This not only affects the customers and threatens the staff, it turns into an absolute case of extortion. During a meeting with the police chief, we had suggested that the police should make a guideline that not more than two persons should collect contribution. This suggestion was hailed by all the traders’ unions in the city, however, sadly hasn’t been taken up by the city police as yet,” said Sangle.
The situation, however, isn’t as bleak everywhere. For instance, traders on Laxmi Road say that they are willingly contributing to the mandals and the mandals employ no force whatsoever. “There are seven Ganpati mandals that we contribute to. They don’t use any force and we never refuse them. We co-exist peacefully,” said Surendra Jain, Treasurer, Laxmi Road Cloth Traders’ Association.
Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime) P R Patil said that the officer bearers of the mandals have been specifically warned about forceful vargani collection. “We have issued strict instruction to all mandals that they should collect donation amicably and only from willing donors. If they force anyone, it will be treated as extortion,” said Patil.