The shootout at Sukhobrishti has once again raised concern about security in the twin townships. While New Town residents are rattled at the thought of criminals staying in their midst for months, those in Salt Lake are alarmed at learning that the gangsters killed in the June 9 encounter had lived in a CL Block guest house in May before moving out.
The police and administration are now holding discussions with committees of blocks and complexes, asking them to collate and share details of all tenants living in their guesthouses and PG accommodations. The committees, however, say this is easier said than done.
A meeting was held at the New Town police station on Wednesday evening where block representatives voiced their problems in presence of deputy commissioner, New Town, Bishop Sarkar, inspector in charge (IC), New Town police station, Sanat Das and IC, Technocity police station, Anindya De. Assistant commissioner of police, Rajarhat, Paresh Ray also attended the meeting.
New Town security scare
Some New Town blocks, like AE Block, had started taking protective measures even before the police meeting. “Right after the Sukhobrishti incident, we had asked residents on our WhatsApp group to submit details of their tenants. Barely six or seven responded. This Sunday, a governing body meeting was held to discuss ways of implementing the directives. We have seven-eight lanes of our block and will hold four camps to hand over the forms to each house. We will also float a Google form to collect details of presidents and secretaries of co-operative housings within a week,” said Debmalya Shome, assistant secretary of New Town AE Block Cultural and Social Welfare Association.
CE Block has appointed a representative in each lane who will distribute the forms to the houses. “Though the police have asked information only on tenants and brokers, we have also added caretakers to the list,” said Alok Das, secretary of CE Block Cultural Association.
But the police’s insistence on proof of their permanent address countersigned by the local panchayat pradhan is proving to be a hurdle. “If they now ask the tenants to produce proof of permanent residence as well, the process will get delayed.” Das suggests connecting Aadhaar cards to the forms in lieu of address proof.
Blocks under duress
CE Block is also appointing two night guards. “There was a theft in our block last night. That has expedited the decision,” Das said, adding that they expected the whistle-blowing guards to act as deterrents against wrong-doers and be in touch with the local police station in emergencies.
“Mark my words, once the gated communities become hard to penetrate, miscreants will choose to stay in residential blocks where vigil is lax,” said Shome.
Indeed the police had come to search a guest house in AI Block, New Town recently. “A combined team of New Town and Midnapore police reached the block around 11pm, looking for a miscreant in a guest house. Though he could not be found there, it struck us later that the manager of the guest house had misbehaved with our members when they went there to collect puja subscription last year. ‘Amader byabostha achhey. (Apnara) Dakleo keu ashbe na,’ they had said, dropping dark hints of connections in influential quarters. It is alright if people do not want to pay chanda but it is difficult to accept such rude behaviour. How will we make such people share information with us?” says Anjan Sarkar, general secretary of ALAKAI Block Cultural and Welfare Association, which comprises three blocks.
AI Block, he pointed out, has a large number of individual plots. “There are 40-50 guesthouses in that block alone. The location is very convenient, being close to the Major Arterial Road and Salt Lake. Many people have bought plots or apartments simply as investment without any plans of settling here,” said Sarkar.
The lack of information can lead to panic under the pandemic situation. “In AK Block, a big vehicle used to come at night, dropping off strangers and picking up a few. “This was at the height of the national lockdown last year. Much later we found out that they were staff members of Tata Medical Center, which had rented the house.”
There is a building in AE Block where not a single owner lives. It has been handed to a company which lets out rooms to paying guests. “We have faced problems in such buildings. The paying guests do not listen to the caretaker and have strangers coming in. We failed to elicit any response from the owner. Now that the administration is also taking an interest, we will push for data collection,” Shome said.
Many doubt whether the data collection drive will be a success. “We are toothless,” said Parthasarathi Adak acidly. The former assistant secretary of BD Block Cultural Association attended the police meetings with the current secretary. “They should have spelt out what we can do if residents refuse to comply.”
Sarkar of ALAKAI pointed out that many residents either do not take membership of the block association or do not bother to renew the initial membership. “I have never seen the owner of the building opposite mine. All three floors are let out and even the tenants keep changing. Forget membership, we have no clue about the identity or whereabouts of the owners in such cases.”
Shome pointed out that the block committees lacked authority. “If any landlord refuses to share tenant information with us, we can’t force their hand. Who knows who enjoys what kind of political influence! Will NKDA or the police protect us if there is an altercation?” he said.
The only way there will be positive impact, he feels, is if the authorities provide adequate support. “I hope the police keep their promise of meeting us periodically. That way, the message will percolate, both to the landlords and the brokers.”
Sarkar wants the authorities to keep strict vigil on buildings being used for commercial purposes. “People bought the plots at cheap rates and turned them into wedding venues and guest houses.” He also wants the police to knock at the doors of defaulters. “If they tick off the first few who fail to share information with us, the others will comply.”
Lack of para culture
Adak of BD Block feels the NKDA needs to make membership of the block association mandatory for the committee to have any voice. “Out of 200-plus occupants in 450-plus ready flats, we have 105 members. Of them, about 50 bothered to take membership only recently, lured by our vaccination initiatives and other help amid the pandemic. Unless we are invested with some authority, this handing of papers will be an eyewash.”
The lack of a place to meet is something every block committee was itching to bring up in case they were given a chance to speak at the Biswa Bangla Convention Centre meet with the NKDA and police top brass. Adak, a former resident of EE Block in Salt Lake, misses the block association-run community centres keenly. He rules out holding meetings in residences of members amid the pandemic. “We have to meet in small numbers in the garage spaces of buildings or spend from our pockets to erect a pandal if we have to call everyone. Such is the situation that we might have to install a bamboo pole macha permanently at the street corner for us to sit on in the evening,” the BD Block resident adds acidly.
Shome is ready to compromise to get a community hall. “If the NKDA is unwilling to hand over control to us, let them keep the booking rights but give us a place to meet. How else do they expect para culture to grow here?” he suggests.
Representatives of blocks under Action Area 1 at the meeting at New Town police station on Wednesday. Pictures by Sudeshna Banerjee
Banking on brokers
Information on brokers is another responsibility the block RWAs are unwilling to shoulder. “Are we going to walk up to youths having tea at roadside stalls and ask if they were brokers? We can at best ask the co-operative buildings to share information on the broker involved if any of their members are letting off their flat,” said Das of CE Block. The muscle man-like profiles of the brokers also make many uneasy. “Golay chain, hatey bala… Who is going to face up to them?” Sarkar wonders. “Why don’t the police run background checks on them and issue identity cards instead of leaving it to us? We are just a bunch of retired folk volunteering for the job,” he says.
Debashis Ghosh, who has been a broker in New Town for nine years, says the police has had a word with them after the shootout. “Ethical brokers always include details of both the landlord and tenant in the contract agreement and hand over a copy of the same to the police. There must have been some lacuna in the Sukhobrishti case,” says Ghosh. “Either way, we have become more vigilant after the incident. I’m entertaining only families of IT or government sector employees. Single men or businessmen are a no-no for the time being. We don’t want trouble.”
Another broker, who operates in Salt Lake and New Town, said he always shares the identity documents of tenants with the police. “The cops even demand a bribe to give us the go-ahead,” he said, adding that he had not received any briefing from the police after the shootout.
Police commissioner Supratim Sarkar addresses block representatives in BJ Block on Sunday with Krishna Chakraborty, chairperson, board of administrators, Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation, seated by him Pictures by Sudeshna Banerjee
At Wednesday’s meeting with the police, the block representatives further pointed out that the guidelines handed to them at the meeting of block and housing complex representatives convened at the convention centre on June 24 were geared towards the gated communities. “We do not have the financial resources to install CCTV cameras at entry and exit points or maintain a register of visitors,” they said. Several also complained of non-cooperation from building owners or caretakers when they approached them with the forms to be filled up with details of tenants and brokers.
DC, New Town, Bishop Sarkar, assured them that a fresh set of guidelines would be framed keeping the requirements of the blocks and co-operative housing complexes in mind. Officers of the police stations would visit the blocks at regular intervals to meet and maintain liaison with residents. “To minimise chances of forgery, you can ask tenants to download their Aadhaar card using the one-time password on their mobile number linked to the card and submit a colour photocopy of that to you.” He also promised to speak to the NKDA on the complaints voiced by several blocks of guest houses coming up on residential plots. “There is a practice of youngsters renting a flat in a group while the agreement of the landlord is with just one of them. In such cases, you might add a line in the agreement you draw up with your tenant or paying guest mentioning the names of the other adults who would be staying there. That way, we have a record of all the people staying there.”
“You have to be our eyes and ears. We do not have a magic wand to gain access to information that even you do not have about your next-door neighbour. Report to us whatever seems amiss in the neighbourhood,” urged Sarkar.
Salt Lake canal-side alert
The blocks along the Kestopur Canal and Eastern Drainage Canal said they were rather vulnerable. “Ours is the last block in Salt Lake and criminals can easily escape by crossing the canal and heading any which way they please. No wonder the Sukhobrishti gangsters took refuge here,” said Dipankar Mitra, assistant secretary of CK-CL block.
He added that the guest house in question had been a nuisance for years. “Their guests threw loud parties late at night, smashed liquor bottles outside…. We have been complaining about them for long but no action was taken.”
The committee is now determined to turn things around. “Push has come to shove. We shall hold drives in the block and, if need be, assign volunteers in different lanes but we have to be up to date with information,” said Mitra, adding that they were also expecting a police post around the Metro station in their block to deal with the post-pandemic crowd of outsiders.
Thefts have been reported over the past few days in blocks like CJ, CG blocks and Sarat Abasan. “The other night someone tried to steal the battery of a car parked in our block. The owner raised an alarm and the thief fled but we are living in fear. Our block has three footbridges across the canal and the canalside too has got encroached. Not just PGs, we want to know the antecedents of these slum dwellers,” said secretary of Sarat Abasan Soumen Kumar Dutta. “We want CCTVs and police patrol too.”
Salt Lake’s CD Block had tried to float a “know your neighbourhood” form in 2018-19, asking residents to submit details of domestic helps, their cars etc. “We didn't get back enough response to make a solid report and so there’s little hope of success now,” says executive committee member Arunabha Hazra. “Moreover, most landlords are elderly and will not make the trip all the way to the police station to submit documents. Had the form been online, they could have at least requested someone to fill it up for them.”
Pabitra Biswas, secretary of AJ blocks, admits they may fail. “Salt Lake has two kinds of residents. Those who have lived here for decades have a sense of belonging and want to contribute to the community’s safety but the PGs only return home to sleep at night. They neither know the block committee members nor care to fill up any form,” he says.
It’s an open secret that many homes in Salt Lake do not declare their tenants and paying guests, in a bid to save on taxes. “Such residents will get caught if they fill up the police’s forms now,” explains secretary of CA Block, Jibadip Bhadury. “We have no authority to force them. At most we can inform the police about these houses and ask them to keep a close watch.”
HA Block executive committee member Tarasankar Chatterjee agrees. “Taxes are the reason no one wants to share details of tenants in their houses and garages. Plus, at a time when we aren’t even able to hold block meetings for fear of Covid, how can the authorities expect us to go ringing every doorbell asking for Aadhar cards and the like! I doubt the success of this initiative,” he says.
Where there’s a will
Then again there is Jal Vayu Vihar, a complex at the edge of Salt Lake bordering the EM Bypass and Eastern Drainage Canal, that has always been particular about safety. “I am proud to say that we have never reported a theft in our complex and we take many measures to ensure this,” said Bijoy Narayan Chaudhuri, vice-chairman, board of directors, Jal Vayu Vihar.
First, they do not allow brokers to find tenants and only go by personal references. “We prefer families with defence background and allow them in only after interviews and police verifications. Our domestic helps need to submit their ID proof, attested by the local councillor. I strongly encourage other blocks to enforce this.”
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