From a need-based crime to an organised network, Delhi’s snatching epidemic

At Delhi Police control, every hour, the officials manning the 112-helpline receive at least six calls from victims of snatching. From the PM’s niece to a diplomat; from a homemaker to a tourist; from a judge to a labourer, the victims of Delhi infamous snatching cut across all sections of society
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Updated on Sep 23, 2021 06:17 PM IST
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When a former employee at a leading catering service company lost his job, got into massive debt because of online gambling, and became desperate to recover the money, the 35-year-old became a snatcher. On Tuesday evening, when he was arrested, the police said that the man was involved in at least 14 cases.

When the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdown rendered many people jobless, some resorted to crime to make a living. The first crime that two such people, Faizan and Mohammed Adnan — both 23 — committed, to make money, was snatching.

A gateway crime

The life of Delhi’s most-wanted gangster, Sandeep Kala, could have taken a different turn, had he not started his life of crime by snatching cell phones 17 years ago. In his 17-year crime career, of all the crimes he committed, the first on the list is a case of snatching. Kala was caught for the first time while snatching a man’s cell phone outside a liquor store in Samaypur Badli.

Between that evening of December 2004 outside the liquor store and the morning of July 29, 2021, when he was finally arrested, Kala added over two dozen heinous cases to his name; carried a reward of 7 lakh, and was wanted by the police in five different states.

At Delhi Police control, every hour, the officials manning the 112-helpline receive at least six calls from citizens who are victims of snatching. From the prime minister (PM)’s niece to a diplomat; from a home-maker to a tourist visiting the national Capital; from a judge to a labourer or even a student, the victims of Delhi infamous snatching cut across all sections of society.

The crux of complaints to the police is usually the same. “I was walking on the road when two bikers came from behind [me] and snatched my cell phone.” or “I was in the market, when bikers came and snatched my necklace.”

Many former and current officers in the Delhi Police admit that snatching is the most common crime across the city. However, what is more worrying is that it is a gateway crime for juveniles and first time- offenders.

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From those who lost their jobs during the pandemic to those who want to have a “better lifestyle” or “impress their girlfriends”, the cases of different people choosing to snatch for a living are many. In 2019, the police control room received 56,937 distress calls complaining of snatching. In 2020, the number was 24,756.

But it wasn’t always like this.

It started with burglaries

An expert on crimes in Delhi, former Delhi police’s deputy commissioner of police (DCP) LN Rao, joined the Delhi Police in 1977, and worked in the force for over three decades. Explaining the rise of snatching as a crime, he said, “Before snatching, the most common gateway crime was burglary. Criminals started their careers as burglars. They did it when they needed money. The Delhi Development Authority [DDA] started building colonies across the city. Hundreds of people would live in the colonies and often, when someone went on a holiday, their flats would be burgled. We noticed that burglars often targeted only the flats on the top floor because they thought it was the safest, as no one from the lower floors would bother to check what was happening. Burglary was common from the upscale colonies to the slums across the national Capital. Back in the 1970s or 1980s, we formed anti-burglary teams.”

The officer said that there were cases of snatching, especially gold jewellery, but they were fewer in number.

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“The snatchers then were very few and snatched gold chains or handbags. There were no cell phones then. The number of two-wheelers on the road was also less. Remember, not everyone could afford a motorcycle or a scooter three decades ago. Even those who committed the snatching mostly stopped their victims on the narrow by-lanes, snatched bags and jewellery, and fled on foot. They would be local criminals. It was not an organised network,” Rao added.

The growth of organised snatching

The high number of two-wheelers registered in Delhi is nearly 8 million — 7,959,753 according to the Delhi government. This is one scooter or a motorcycle for one Delhi resident (based on Census 2011). Add to this the number of scooters and motorcycles registered in the nearby satellite towns of Gurugram, Noida, Faridabad, and Greater Noida, but are used in the national Capital.

Another problem, the police said, is the high number of cell phones in the market. According to the 2020 Delhi Statistical Survey, at least 68.2% of Delhi residents have cell phones (based on the 2011 Census). Delhi’s population in the census 10 years ago was over 16 million (16,368,899). Delhi Police officers say the actual number of cell phone users could be twice this number.

Consider this. In 2012, the Delhi government conducted a survey and found that Delhi has at least 42 million cell phone users — four cell phones registered for one city resident.

“This is the reason why cell phones and vehicles are the most common items stolen in Delhi. There are too many on the streets. It becomes difficult for the police to track every stolen cell phone or car. It is not practical,” said a police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Another police expert, Ashok Chand, who worked in the Delhi Police between 1983 and 2015 said that in the mid-1980s, there were what police called foot snatchers.

“There were cases of people walking on the road, who would be stopped by thugs or the colony’s local goons. They would then be robbed of their watch or jewellery. But the numbers were still fewer. In fact, the most common stolen item was a bicycle, television or music system. Today, snatching is rampant and has also become a sophisticated crime with snatchers buying high-end bikes that will enable them to flee the crime spot quickly,” said Chand.

Chand added that in the coming days, the police will have to launch a crackdown on all city’s known snatchers to ensure that the streets are again safer.

Going by the records of people arrested for snatching, police said it is common to find KTM bikes or scooters without gears as commonly used two-wheelers for snatching. A KTM Duke 390 bike has a horsepower of around 43 BHP and can reach a speed of 0-100 in seven seconds. Compared to this, other commonly-used bikes in Delhi have a horsepower of below 15-20.

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“Until 10 years ago, a motorcycle was commonly used by snatchers. Now with the sudden boom of gearless scooters, which has become more common, snatchers prefer to use scooters. These gearless scooters also have an advantage. The snatchers need not worry about the lag in the speed when they change gears. All they have to do is push the throttle to flee far from the crime scene. The difference isn’t much but even a delay of a second is important when you are fleeing a crime spot,” an officer from the crime branch, who asked not to be named, said.

Cracking down on the network

The Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) was enacted in 1999 to prevent and control organised crime syndicates. The Act ensures stricter conditions for an accused to come out on bail if they are booked under MCOCA. MCOCA was earlier used by the Mumbai Police against members of the underworld to crack down on their organised crime syndicate and stop the finances of the crime.

Following many case studies of Delhi’s snatchers working as an organised syndicate with several people in a single gang — each with an assigned role such as disposing of cell phones, selling stolen jewellery, and so on — the police have started booking snatchers under MCOCA. They have also proposed amendments in the law to ensure longer jail terms and difficult bail conditions. The law is yet to come into effect.

In Delhi’s Tihar jail, of the nearly 18,000 prisoners, most are arrested for “theft”. Prison data shows that until July 31, 2021, at least 17% of prisoners, which is the second-highest were lodged for theft (snatching), preceded only by 20% prisoners for murder.

“We place snatchers under the theft crime category. Burglars are under a different section — burglary. There are less than 1% of prisoners lodged inside for burglary. The high number of prisoners lodged inside shows how common snatching has become. The third-highest is rape at around 14%, “a mid-level prison officer, who asked not to be named, said.

Former officer, LN Rao, explains that easy money has made snatching a lucrative crime. “All that one has to do is take out a bike; target someone on the road; and risk not getting caught. The expensive phones can be sold at half the price in any Delhi market. People are willing to buy stolen items for half the price. A stolen piece of jewellery is melted by a jeweller within minutes, the evidence of the crime is gone. Even if the police catch the snatchers, it becomes difficult to connect the evidence with their crimes and secure a conviction. The result is they are released from prison easily and commit the crimes again.”

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On Tuesday, when the police arrested a chef from the catering unit, they found he had an accomplice. The man worked with a goldsmith from Delhi’s Sangam Vihar. Police said that the goldsmith’s job was to melt the stolen gold items.

A cause for worry: Juvenile snatchers

But more than anything, the police have a bigger worry. It is the increasing number of juveniles who are lured to snatching. Though the police do not maintain a database for the number of juveniles apprehended, or share details since the identity of juveniles in conflict with the law are withheld on the orders of the Juvenile Justice Board, senior police officers said such cases are one too many.

Teenagers as young as 14 and 16 have been caught for the crime. The reason why they took to snatching is often the same — “to fulfil their daily requirements, to impress their girlfriends, addicted to drugs.” Only last week, two juveniles aged 16 and 17 were apprehended for a series of snatchings in the Rohini area.

Retired Delhi Police officer, Rajender Singh, who worked in the Delhi Police for over three decades, said,” Criminals know the Juvenile Justice Act well. Some of them even get juveniles to do the snatching because they know that they cannot be jailed. Until three decades ago, snatching or burglary was a need-based crime. A television or a music system set was a prized possession, so it was stolen. It fetched money when sold to the receivers of stolen property. A cell phone today is not a prized item, but its snatching is still rampant because it has become an organised crime.”

Singh, who led the investigation in many significant Delhi crimes such as the 2012 Delhi gangrape, has a word of advice for the city police. “We never allowed the Bombay underworld to flourish in Delhi, It was nipped at the bud. We did not allow organised crime to grow in Delhi like it did in Mumbai. It is time to act tough against snatchers and prevent it from growing to be such a big industry.”

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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Sunday, November 28, 2021