It is 8.30 am on a Sunday. The premises of the Town Police Station at Behrampur in Odisha is packed with police vehicles, giving the impression of a potential VIP visit. Along the station road, coconut and sugarcane juice vendors have taken up strategic spots.
Around 8.45 am, a few visitors walk in through the gates and are directed to a small hall in the compound. A light banter breaks out between the inspectors and the visitors.
The men in the room range from youngsters who have committed petty crimes to history-sheeters who bear the scars of sword fights and country-bomb attacks. In all, there are 86 of them — some nervous, others suspicious. As they face a small table behind which wait four empty chairs, they look straight ahead, without speaking to each other.
“Keep sitting,” instructs Berhampur’s Additional SP Santanu Das, striding into the room with three other officers. “We arrested you when you committed crimes,” Das says, his stentorian voice filling the room. “But we buy food from the same market, and we all drink Rushikulya’s (the local river) water. If you want to turn away from crime, come here every week. These meetings will help.”
The meeting is part of Berhampur Police’s pilot initiative to counsel criminals for 30 minutes every Sunday in an attempt to wean them away from crime. Initially termed the ‘Gunda Parade’ when it was launched on April 15 this year, it has since been renamed the ‘Parivartan Samaroh’ in keeping with its reform agenda.
The State Crime Record Bureau’s data reveals that the Berhampur-Ganjam area accounted for the second highest number of crimes in Odisha in 2017, with 7,084 cases registered under different heads such as murder, dacoity and robbery. It came in after Bhubaneswar-Khordha area (9,540). Officials say crimes in Berhampur-Ganjam can usually be traced to mafia and gangs.
Earlier, crime here was fuelled by the illicit liquor trade, but after the 2012 hooch tragedy, in which 29 died after consuming spurious liquor, the government clamped down. That led to the liquor gangs diversifying and entering the burgeoning real estate market in Behrampur, a town with old land records that are locked in complex disputes. The gangs helped ‘settle’ disputes that would otherwise languish in the legal system for decades. Soon, they had earned the trust of local families and, by extension, political patronage.
Says an inspector, who has grown up in the district, “The Ganjam-Berhampur area has both Odiya residents and Telugu settlers as it is close to the Andhra border. Over the years, clashes between the two communities have led to both sides seeking protection offered by ringmasters of organised crime.”
Police hope to use the ‘Parivartan Samaroh’ to target the second-rung leadership of two of the most notorious gangsters — a Congress MLA with 112 cases to his name, including murder; and a mayor, who was first affiliated with the BJD but is now with the BJP. “Former MLA Ramesh Jena and former mayor Pintu Das, who are behind bars, may reactivate gang members upon release. We are counselling their second-rung leaders to avoid their return to crime,” says Das, the Additional SP.
“There is the legal system, which takes care of crime,” he goes on to explain. “But apart from that, we are testing whether we can take up social initiatives to address the problems of those who have had a brush with crime, counsel them on seeking jobs and securing loans, or finding treatment for sick family members. They have to know that there are other ways to earn a living. It is hard to motivate criminals because they earn a lot from crime. But there are many smaller criminals, who can be talked out of crime through other non-financial support. We are hoping to soon rope in criminologists, psychologists and other trained professionals to improve the quality of these counselling sessions,” adds Das.
Back at the meeting, a couple of first-time participants ask why they have been summoned. The police personnel assures them that their presence is not mandatory but desirable for roughly 30 minutes every Sunday morning. Food packets, tea, and water pouches are distributed as Das continues to tell folk stories about men who lost their way only to salvage their reputations through “just one noble act” for their communities. He repeatedly stresses that is possible to give up crime and lead respectable lives. Kalia Munna, 39, charged with murder, is listening impassively, but rape accused Bidu Bisoi, 43, suddenly gets up and declares, “I want to change. Help me.” He is assured that his station officer will have a more discreet chat with him later.
A murmur breaks out in the last row, distracting the officers. A couple of inspectors quietly slip into the back rows to ensure complete silence. After the meeting, police make sure the participants do not mingle for too long. In minutes, the compound falls empty.
Back home, Kalia Munna appears conflicted about the initiative. “Some cases against me did not proceed because witnesses retracted their statements under pressure from my gang leader. If he decides to ask for my help, I may not have a choice but to do as he says. But maybe if I keep meeting police regularly, he may stop calling me,” says Munna.
The families of the gangsters say they fully back the initiative. Sitting in her living room, Sangeeta, wife of Mitu Behera, who was an accused in a bomb-throwing incident, says, “Meeting the police regularly will keep him straight. He’s no longer involved in crime and runs a truck business, but everyone slips. Police will be better counsellors than wives.”
“We are hoping he gets a job,” says Pushpanjali, wife of Sankarshan Padhi, booked in six cases under IPC 399 (preparation to commit dacoity). She points to Sankarshan’s mother, who is lying on a cot, strapped to a ventilator, and says, “Our financial troubles forced his hand, but he has been clean for four years. Maybe the police can assess him and put in a word with some businessman who can offer him a job.”
“While the counselling initiative is in the initial stages, at some point we have to consider institutionalising it,” says DIG Southern Range Ashish Singh.