Mumbai’s traffic police force is a species unto itself. The men and women in white draw sympathy and disgust in equal measures from the average citizen. Once in a while, the circumstances around the death of a traffic cop like that of head constable Vilas Shinde who passed away nine days after he was attacked by two bikers in Khar on August 23, brings urgent attention to the issue.
In rain or shine, on festivals and public holidays, traffic cops are out there in the grime and dust, bravely trying to bring order to the chaos on the streets and nab offenders. They are overworked and underpaid. They have a tough job what with the vehicle explosions and the increasing disregard that drivers show for road discipline. So, they are grateful for any gesture of warmth, some mithai, a handshake now and then.
But traffic cops are also the public face of the broken, compromised and corrupt system of policing. Citizens interact with traffic cops more often than they do with the person in khakhi at a police station. The cops’ absence from junctions that are often gridlocked, their penchant for nabbing offenders only to let them off for easy money, their nexus with towing vans which wreak havoc on parking spaces, and more — all bring out the worst in Mumbaiites for this force.
As the number of vehicles on the roads increased and traffic violations galloped in the last few years, the indiscipline and violations followed too. A stretched force, unskilled to take on such pressures, meant that cops often handled offenders with arrogance, rough language and the occasional heavy hand. People’s road rage too found a convenient outlet in assaulting the cops.
There were 40 and 49 cases of physical attacks on cops in 2014 and 2015, respectively. More than 20 cases of serious assaults and injury have been registered so far this year, two in the last three days in Thane and Vile Parle. The one on Shinde was the most heinous of them. The 51-year-old cop was, in all accounts, pulling up an underage and unlicensed teenager riding a bike without a helmet at Khar petrol pump. The teenager and his brother, who hit Shinde with a wooden staff, have been booked for murder.
The attack rightly raised questions about posting traffic police at petrol pumps to record information of vehicles. The more important issue is of their safety while on duty, an issue that galvanised shocked families of traffic cops this week. They raised this with chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. They also took their grievance to Uddhav Thackeray and Raj Thackeray. The older Thackeray cousin, in turn, placed the concern before the CM.
Politicising Shinde’s death is not the answer. There are two fundamental issues involved. First, the Mumbai traffic police department has simply not kept up with the available technology that can help cops nab offenders. E-chalans, CCTV systems and body cameras as part of their uniform go some distance in reducing the incidents of assaults, as other cities have shown. The Mumbai Police are discussing this only now.
Second, there is no alternative to increasing the force on the streets. The police manual does not specify the number of traffic personnel to be deployed per vehicle or per kilometre. There are only 2,850 cops and officers to monitor about 20 lakh vehicles in Mumbai. But the number is closer to 2,000 because about 500 are assigned to VIP duty, about 250 to 300 are dedicated to administrative or court or control room duties. Effectively, there’s only one cop for every 1,000 vehicles. Given that they work in staggered shifts, the ratio drops further.
Fadnavis and the Thackeray cousins commiserated with the families, offered compensation and promised action against the attackers, but it isn’t enough. The traffic police force needs more personnel, trained for today’s challenges, and adequately equipped to take on the violators. Else, Shinde would have died in vain