Babubagan Lane, Dhakuria: He asked for a pouch of milk, she leant to pick up one, he pulled at her necklace. Shefali Dey, 48, grabbed the snatcher but four shots rang out and she had to let go of him.
Middle Road, Survey Park: Deepali Majumder, 51, paused to think when the young man named a fictitious person and asked if she knew her. A second’s distraction, and her chain was gone.
Central Park, Jadavpur: Nanda Kundu, 68, had just bought flowers for her household deity when a man snatched at her necklace from behind on Friday. The flower seller had almost caught the robber before he opened fire.
Calcutta, Sept. 22: Three daylight attacks in neighbourhoods where women had set about their everyday chores early without any sense of insecurity have shown that crime has crept closer to Calcuttans’ homes.
Twice the snatchers were resisted, and twice they opened fire. No arrests had been made till late tonight.
The audacity of the strikes and the easy escape suggest even petty criminals are no longer afraid of the police, a scary thought that could make every citizen ask: “Could I be next? Is seven in the morning not safe in this city?”
People should bank on their neighbours to ward off criminals, the chief minister seemed to suggest today in general comments unconnected to these three snatchings, but few would have missed the irony. “If there is unity in localities and apartments, thieves and robbers will be afraid. Everyone should be friends,” Mamata Banerjee said at Tala Park at the other end of the city.
But the morning robberies had experts questioning the authorities’ role. “Robbing openly and brandishing guns is the signature of ‘Me-Too’ criminals with disposable income and little fear of the law. It could be because of the perception that you can get away with anything if you have money or a powerful ‘uncle’,” said criminologist Partha Das Chowdhury.
“The presence of a capable guardian (the state or police) can reduce crime but these three incidents make it apparent that the state and police have failed in their roles.”
Calcutta police have grown in girth since Mamata assumed office last year, their area almost doubling from 100sqkm to 187sqkm with the handover of 17 police stations on the city’s southern fringes by Bengal police.
But the move seems to have ensured that these “added areas”, which include Jadavpur and Survey Park, are now guarded by a force split in loyalties and low on sense of responsibility, police officers themselves say.
When the new police stations accrued to them on September 1 last year, Calcutta police were saddled with most of the existing personnel from Bengal police.
Every “added area” police station now has two groups. One, the personnel from Bengal police, de-motivated and uncaring about the concerns of their new Calcutta bosses. Two, the fresh arrivals from other Calcutta police stations who have not tried to familiarise themselves with the new areas well enough in the absence of pressure from the top, a senior officer said.
Around eight hours after Majumder had been robbed at Survey Park, an officer from the local police station told this newspaper he did not know where the scene of the crime was. Not every officer at a police station has to know all the details of a particular case, but the lack of basic knowledge about local geography may indicate why robbers seem to be having a free run.
The half-hearted transition from Bengal police to Calcutta police took place over three months without the provision of necessary infrastructure, from personnel to vehicles. “Jorasanko police station in central Calcutta has 150 personnel for an area a little over a square kilometre. In contrast, Patuli police station (in the added areas) has 60 personnel watching over 10sqkm,” an officer said.
Besides, with the Bengal police brass allegedly pulling out some of their best officers from these police stations just before the handover, “intelligence-gathering about local criminals has fallen apart”, said an officer.
The city police brass too seem less interested in the new police stations. “Ota-to (that’s an) added area,” is the stock Lalbazar response to crimes in these parts.
A detective department officer at Lalbazar today passed the blame: “Because of intelligence failure in the added areas, our department is not aware of the emerging gangs.”
In Dhakuria, Shefali Dey was working at a government milk booth when a man “in his late 20s” wrenched off her chain. She grabbed his shirt, “fighting with him, shouting to people to stop him”.
The young man and an accomplice began firing “and I let go of him”. Four bullet marks were found on the road barely 100 metres from Dhakuria station, where people were milling around.
Homemaker Krishna Gupta, 52, who buys milk from the same booth, heard the shots from her kitchen. “I had never heard a gunshot before and never thought I would.”
Decorator Badal De stepped out of his shop but stopped “when a man on the bike waved a gun at me”.
An officer said relatively well-to-do criminals, who ride bikes and flaunt handguns, often carry out snatchings “to feed their rising aspirations”.
In May, one of three youths held for a snatching in Chetla turned out to be an English honours student who worked at a call centre. Another was the son of a retired college principal. In February, a third-year management student was caught for a similar offence.
None of them had a gun to show off, though.