The festive season is a tense time for shopkeepers. The reason: they are forced to dole out exorbitant amounts as donations for the celebrations, especially for Janmashtami and Ganesh Utsav. Often, this extortion is done by goons belonging to political parties, which then use the money to sponsor celebrations and gain political mileage, allege shopkeepers.
The Fort area is a case in point: the roughly 800 such shops there each shell out Rs 15,000 to 20,000 every year for such donations. “It’s pure extortion in the name of religion,” said Ashok Patel, president of the Fort Merchant Welfare Association, which has been battling the menace for years.
Just three days ago, the association lodged a complaint after two stationery shop owners were threatened with dire consequences when they refused to pay Rs 5,000 as donation to a Ganesh mandal (an association that organises the celebrations).
In Fort alone, there are over 40 such mandals and merchants have to pay each one Rs 101 to Rs 10,000 depending upon the scale of the business and the location of the shop. This problem is not restricted to Fort, but exists in every business area of Mumbai.
The mandal members, making little attempt to hide their party affiliations, enter shops in large groups to pressurise traders. They simply tear out a receipt of an amount of their choice and demand the money. If the trader refuses, the mandal members abuse and threaten him. The goons usually barge in during peak business hours, threatening to disrupt sales if the money is not paid immediately.
The Federation of Associations of Maharashtra, an apex body of over 750 merchant associations, plans to issue a circular to its members to resist such pressure tactics. “We appeal to our members not to entertain such people and report them to the police,” said Mohan Gurnani, president of the federation.
But the mandals and parties deny all charges. “I object to people calling donations as extortion, as we collect just once a year,” said Pandurang Jadhav, president of the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsava Coordination Committee. “We appeal to festival organisers to keep intact the sanctity of the event and not harass people.”
Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said his party has clear policy not to extort money from traders during the festival season, while Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray promised to take action against any of his partymen was found indulging in such activities.