Who is the real criminal?

cplcBy Zubeida Mustafa

In August 1994, my car, an old Suzuki, was snatched at gun point. It was recovered the next day by the police after an encounter they claimed. This experience of my car being taken away by force and then the tedious process of obtaining it back from the custodians of the law was a traumatic one. Had the CPLC and the Deputy Commissioner (South) not intervened I might have remained deprived of my car.

The situation is no better today for the unfortunate ones who fall victim to car robbers. And there are still far too many of them. Athough the statistics released by the CPLC, which has an excellent computerise records system, show wide fluctuations in the incidence of this brand of crime.

Since January there has been a phenomenal rise in car thefts and car snatchings in Karachi. In the first two months of the year 688 cars and 791 two-wheelers have been stolen/snatched — an average of more than eleven cars and 13 motorbikes a day (indications are that March will be worse). Only 38 per cent of the four-wheelers and 18 per cent of the two-wheelers could be recovered. In 1996, on an average ten cars were lost in a day.

Why this upsurge in the crime graph in the city? Jameel Yusuf, chief of the CPLC, links it directly to the vested interests in politics who are benefiting from this trade. “I had warned of the rising graph two months ago,” he says. There had been a lull in political activity after Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s murder in September. Now there are elements who wish to recover what they have spent on their election campaign.

The fact is that stolen cars are quite freely being used by people in positions of power and pelf. How? The obsolete laws which operate in this country, lack of inter-provincial coordination, corruption in the administration, inadequacy of the police — all these factors combine to help the criminals and their patrons get away with the crime. Since those who can change these laws are the major beneficiaries of car snatching, they have not even attempted to bring about the necessary amendments.

Jameel Yusuf believes that a crime can be checked only if you ensure that it does not pay. He cites the example of kidnapping for ransom. It had become the most serious crime in the city in 1990 when the CPLC was formed. It has practically been rooted out today because of CPLC’s very high success rate in busting the kidnappers’ gangs. But because stolen cars are not generally recovered and if caught the thief is sent to jail for just a few days, there is absolutely no deterrence. But the conventional view is that it is the ineptitude and corruption of the police which is basically responsible for this upsurge in car thefts.

There is also a widespread belief that the police actually connive with the criminals. The police are not only ill-equipped. They also lack training and expertise to handle crime. But the more important factor responsible for the criminalisation of the police is the blatant political interference in its working.

It is a known fact that the politicians in power use the police to victimise their opponents. That is why a massive reshuffling of the officers normally accompanies every change of government. It has been no exception this time. But the repercussions have been worse on this occasion because the Murtaza Bhutto murder and the subsequent events have totally demoralised the police and resulted in a collapse of authority.

The increase in car theft is symptomatic of that. But Jameel Yusuf has another story to tell which also carries a lot of conviction. He says that nearly 70 per cent of all cars snatched/stolen are recovered by the police but cannot be returned to their owners — partly on account of archaic laws that make this process difficult and partly because of the corruption of the state functionaries who are themselves interested in the stolen cars.

Since the other provinces have not been cooperating — either deliberately or out of apathy — it is making the car thieves’ job that much easier. Also lending a helping hand is the motor vehicle registration department. It has not been at all meticulous about the number plates being supplied to the car owners. They can get away with all kinds of irregularities without being booked.

The variety of number plates on display on the cars which are not banned only confuse the semi-literate police constable. He is hardly in a position to decipher them. Would you know what “AFR” stands for if you were to see the initials on a car on the road? They mean “Applied for Registration”. If this anarchy in number plates is not checked it would be impossible for the police to detect stolen cars,

Jameel Yusuf maintains. Jameel also has a serious complaint against the car manufacturers and the insurance companies as well. For them the rise in the incidence of car snatching/theft is like a windfall. For the first it means better sales and bigger profits. For the latter it means higher premiums. Neither of them is at all concerned about the repercussions of this crime on the public. Had there been real concern both would have joined hands with the police to check the evil. In South Africa, where car snatching is a major crime, too, the car manufacturers are going all out to cooperate with the police.

Until the Sindh High Court abolished the superdari system in Sindh, this strange practice, a legacy of the colonial period, was providing a bonanza to the corrupt in the administration. Recovered vehicles were not handed over to their owners but to the friends and family members of influential members of the administration to keep the car in safe custody. This amounted to giving a vehicle on a silver platter to a person to whom it did not belong.

With superdari still legal in Balochistan, Punjab and NWFP, it is freely used there to benefit the rulers. Then there is the notorious practice (now disallowed in Sindh but popular in other provinces) of organising fake auctions to dispose off cars whose owners cannot supposedly be found. Such cars are sold off at ridiculously low prices — of course to people with the right connections. In 1991 the police auctioned 30 cars and 62 two-wheelers for the princely sum of Rs 52,850. Thus a DM of Lasbella auctioned six Toyota Corollas in July- November 1996 for Rs 76,800. It was hardly, a coincidence that the people who benefited from this auction happened to be close relatives of the DM. Since the Sindh High Court has now banned the illegal disposal of recovered stolen cars, they are now moved across the border to other provinces. Superdari and fake auctions are flourishing in Punjab, NWFP and Balochistan. The authorities there have refused to respond to the repeated request from the CPLC to coordinate their efforts at  the national level.

The president’s suggestion of 1993 that CPLCs be set up in all the other provinces was not followed up and, subsequently, the president himself lost interest in his own proposal.

The CPLC chief would like to see all the provinces following Sindh’s example and banning the re-registration of a car. If this law were nationally adopted, it would be possible to trace a stolen/snatched vehicle which at present changes its identity by virtue of the change in its registration number in Quetta, Lahore or Peshawar, after fake documents of sale have been produced. For example in 1995, 339 cars were re-registered while the following year 312 followed the same path. Since the chassis number and the engine number remained unchanged, the cars could be subsequently traced but after enormous difficulty.

All this makes the other provinces a flourishing market for stolen cars. Most of the cars snatched/stolen in Karachi are leaving the city for the greener pastures in Balochistan, Punjab and NWFP — even Central Asia they say — where the vested interests are thriving on the trade. The carriers who actually snatch the car earn no more than Rs 50,000 or so per car. With 26 exit points in the city, the police find it impossible to check the flight of the stolen cars from Karachi.

The CPLC chiefs oft voiced complaint that the other provinces are not cooperating and without their help nothing can be done to check the crime in Karachi carries some weight. This is an evil which recognises no frontiers. Cars stolen in the US are ending up in Russia. Recently, the South African police managed to recover 1376 stolen cars and crack several car-theft syndicates after a joint international operation with the Zambian, Mozambique and Zimbabwean authorities. We can’t even do something at the inter-provincial level. To begin with, all the provinces must introduce the changes in the law demanded by the CPLC. It is a pity that the CPLC itself has failed to move the government to do something about the problem. “We don’t have the powers or the resources,” Jameel observes.

Meanwhile what can the individual car owner do to protect his vehicle from being snatched or stolen? There are some dos and don’ts which Jameel Yusuf suggests.

Have your car fitted with an electronic alarm which will deter the thief. Contrary to popular belief, the trend is that more cars are being stolen today than snatched.

When approaching your home or a place where you plan to slow down, or another parked car, be very observant and look out for suspicious looking characters around. Use your rear mirror more frequently — not just for combing your hair.

Don’t sit and wait in the car. Get your car’s engine number and chassis number etched on the windscreen. It gives extra protection since to change the windscreen is a costly affair. The CPLC’s computerised data has helped Jameel Yusuf and his colleagues to identify some broad trends:

The most unsafe district to drive in is District East where 166 cars were stolen/snatched in February (January: 145) followed by South in which 93 were taken away (January: 98). The recovery rate was also lowest in district East (31 per cent in January).

The most notorious police thana was Ferozabad from where 40 vehicles were taken in February (January: 32).

Suzukis are the most popular with car thieves and white is the favourite colour.

Tuesdays were the worst day when car thieves went on a rampage in February. But all said and done, one can well ask, “Is your car safe if it is not a Suzuki, not white in colour, and you stay home on Tuesdays and don’t drive in the Ferozabad thana area and …”. “No” is the categorical answer. It is up to the government, the police and the CPLC, as well as the citizens, to work together to check this crime which is hitting the not-so wealthy car owner more than anyone else.

Source: Dawn 23 March 1997