The empty coffers of the Maa-Mati-Manush government have got American Centre shootout mastermind Aftab Ansari starting a hunger strike in Alipore Central Jail.
The connection: a private cellphone service provider that started phone kiosks on jail premises about a year ago has snapped connections after dues piled up after the government kept defaulting on payments. Ansari has also appealed to chief minister Mamata Banerjee and National Human Rights Commission praying to restore the telephone facility.
The closing down of the booth has got Ansari and his accomplice Jamaluddin Naser launch a hunger strike and lead the agitation behind bars, which is being supported by 200 inmates. The government was supposed to pay Rs. 50,000 to the operator.
“What can we do? The private telecom company had a deal with the government of generating minimum business of R50,000 per month per booth. But we could not pay up due to poor response, and now dues of several lakhs have piled up. Almost all three central jails in Kolkata are facing the same problem,” said Chittaranjan Ghorui, superintendent of Alipur central jail.
The booths in Alipore central jail, Dum Dum central jail and Presidency central jails, set up about a year ago as a part of Bengal prison reforms, were shut down recently.
However, many inmates smuggle their personal phones inside jails. Over the past few months, about 300 phones (and SIMs) were confiscated from Kolkata jails. The decision to install kiosks was partly driven by the need to control the infiltration of cellphones in prisons.
“They have written to us about the hunger strike. We have forwarded the due bills as well as the petition to state jail department,” Ghorui said.
On Monday Ansari and Naser wrote a petition in Hindi to the jail authorities. On Tuesday they wrote to chief minister Mamata Banerjee and NHRC raising the issue and seeking help. They said that the phone booth was the only medium for majority of inmates to get in touch with their families. Sources stated that three kiosks put up on Alipore central jail, Dum Dum central jail and Presidency central jail has been recently shut down.
“Many of the convicts and undertrials hail from different districts, states or countries. It’s not possible for family members to visit them regularly. They said the inmates are dependent on the phone kiosk to keep in touch with their family,” said a jail officer.
“The prisoners also informed us that they will not take food until the phone booth facility is restored. Two hundred inmates have extended support to the duo,” said the officer.
The phone booth is part of a series of prison reforms initiated during the Left Front regime. BD Sharma, former ADG and IG prisons, introduced the kiosk first in Dum Dum jail and then in Alipore and Presidency jails.
To use the phone booth, each inmate is to provide three numbers to the authorities where they are allowed to call after verification. They are to submit R100 monthly for 80 minutes of call time. Inmates said they are ready to pay more for their calls.