The stout, mustachioed traffic police are one of Mumbai’s many iconic features. If they are not standing in the middle of busy junctions trying to enforce order on the city traffic, they are sitting in the shade or talking on their mobile phones. As the elections approach, rising crime and police conduct mean that the police are facing the glare of the political spotlight once again.
Following the 26/11 terrorist attacks, Mumbai’s police force faced major criticism, and rightly so. In the aftermath of the bombings, reports surfaced that when the shooting started, rather than spring to the defence of helpless citizens, many of the city’s finest literally turned and fled.
Even today, the sheer flood of people using CST (the railway station where most people died during 26/11) means that the metal detectors and 4 officers assigned to carry out random searches on those entering the building just don’t happen.
Those of you who’ve read Maximum City will know that the police in Mumbai do not exactly have a squeaky clean reputation. Before 26/11, it was common to be stopped and fined for all manner of “traffic offences” during the last 10 days of each month – round about the time when wages run out. For a couple of weeks after the attacks, the police were on best behaviour, enforcing the rules and arresting those attempting to bribe their way out of tickets.
Just yesterday, I saw a policeman deliver a hearty slap across the face to a motorcyclist at the side of the road who was arguing against the fine he was about to receive. Friends of ours caught driving in the city without a licence bribed a traffic officer to let them go. Friends of friends allegedly bribed a judge to get out of serving time at the city’s infamous Arthur Road jail. Drink driving might have been a national sport in Belgium but this is a whole new world. It is disturbing how quickly we as expats have come to accept this as normal and relish the tales of how arrest was avoided.
The Times of India reported today that for every policeman in India, there are 739 citizens. The UN recommended norm is one per every 450 citizens. A poll by the Times reveals that 35% of the population across 10 of India’s major cities believe that “the police inspire fear in the common man and confidence in criminals”. A whopping 74% believe that politicians work with the police to help protect criminals.
Yet despite all this, I’ve never felt remotely unsafe in the city. Overwhelmed, certainly, and definitely alarmed when crowds suddenly materialise to gawk at the goras. Perhaps we’ve been lucky. Perhaps, as expats, we just exist in a different world.