BY ARPIT PARASHAR
Barely days after the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government took office in Uttar Pradesh (UP) policemen from the local chowki in Noida’s sector-51 visited Anand Mahto’s shop—a small wooden cabinet on which he hangs a LED light at night and some flowers during the day—selling cigarettes, pan masala and freshly prepared pan. The road abuts a green patch next to one of Noida’s major sewage drains in sector-51; this 1 km patch is home to 10 other small and big “khokhas” as stalls that line the street are called. All were visited by the police, as were similar stalls across the city and state over the next weeks and months.
The message to Mahto was that the monthly bribe to the police would be Rs 2,000 from the Rs 200-300 earlier. In addition, he should deposit Rs 10,000 as immediate charge within 15 days, apart from applying for a licence with the Noida Authority for legal permission to operate from the spot. It was a shock for Mahto. The policemen told Mahto, “Yogi ka raj aa gaya matlab kanoon ka raj. Baaki khud samajh jao, samajhdaar ho (Yogi’s rule is here and that means rule of law. You can understand the rest, smart as you are)”.
For the policemen, as one of the constables at the chowki said, this was the opportunity to finally make up for their losses from demonetisation last year. “And we know BJP leaders are ideological winners, not political winners who know the ground realities like we do. We have this window of opportunity to remonetise ourselves, too,” he said. The constable claimed to have lost Rs 25 lakh in earnings, even after using “links” to legitimise the money he had earned through bribes. In all, he could only get Rs 10 lakh converted to new notes.
Mahto paid a bribe of Rs 1,000 at first and asked for more time to cough up the rest. Days later his stall was removed during an anti-encroachment drive by the Noida Authority. He claimed to be registered but was told that old licences were not valid. The police simply put their hands up and said, “Everything as per law.” Mahto settled with the police at Rs 7,000; but he couldn’t sell pan anymore. “That requires a little better arrangement,” he was told.
He got back his shop after paying another Rs 20,000 50 days later to the officials at the Noida Authority as bribe apart from the small payment for the licence application. In all, apart from the bribes, he suffered a loss of around Rs 1.2 lakh over the period, he says.
Zahoor Ahmad, who ran his chicken and mutton stall along the same stretch was not as lucky. Within two days of the government coming to power, when the announcement of closing illegal slaughterhouses and meat shops was made by the CM, policemen arrived at his shop. They manhandled him, throwing kilos of freshly cut meat into the drain and killing many chickens in the cages. They even carried off some of them saying, “Aaj ki payment yeh hai (this is today’s payment).”
Ahmad did not open shop for the next two months, pleading with police, who plainly said that he needed a new licence from the authority as well as Rs 2.5 lakh as initial payment and Rs 10,000 as monthly payment from here on, to keep his shop. He eventually did that, got his licence renewed after paying another Rs 50,000, and now sells meat at a higher price to compensate for the bribes he has to pay. “Customers do complain at times, but they know meat is a prized commodity now; that’s what this government has been telling the people. You have to be rich to eat meat.”
In the name of implementing laws and regulations the bureaucracy and police have found a new way of enriching themselves under the present BJP government. The bribe economy is experiencing its best time in the past few years, especially after the previous Samajwadi Party (SP) government implemented some checks and balances that, while inadequate, had an impact on people earning a living from roadside stalls and other minor professions.
The bribe economy is a systemic and systematic problem in India. In March, the corruption watchdog group Transparency International found India the most corrupt country in Asia among the 16 Asia-Pacific countries it surveyed. Its report said 85 per cent of the respondents put police at the top of the corruption table, apart from terming 71 per cent of religious leaders corrupt.
Interviews and interactions with various officials over the past three months show police are happy toeing the government’s line as long as it leaves them free to take care of “law and order”.
Vikramjit Singh, an IPS officer who took early retirement from his job two months ago—a decision he had already taken last year—says policemen are incapable of working efficiently unless there is fear of action by the government.
“In this case (of the Yogi government) they (BJP) come with their own agenda which they want police to implement, be it ban on slaughter of cows, illegal meat selling and slaughter or even the anti-Romeo campaign. What most of this does is increase paper work, which is where police find the space to manipulate the system. Ambiguities in various sections of the law let them block a case for years on frivolous charges to make sure they keep minting money from the parties as the case drags on.”
The point Singh makes is that while every government insists on rule of law, paper work by police is according to the social outlook and ideology of a particular government. “Under SP, attacks on minorities were not tolerated but strict action against perpetrators was discouraged except in ‘cut-out’ (clearly violent) cases. But with such an inexperienced CM (the Yogi) who can only rely on police for the so-called implementation of law, the scope for manipulation is huge. Police just toe the political line while making merry otherwise (through bribes, extortion, etc.),” Singh said.
This is evident from the way street politics has taken shape since the Adityanath government came to power. The Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), formed by Adityanath in his days as a young Hindutva crusader and still led by him, has seen an almost 50-fold rise in membership since he came to power. BJP and RSS leaders do not officially acknowledge it as part of the Sangh Parivar, but it wields immense power on the streets of the state.
In April, for example, a 100-strong group claiming to be from HYV stormed a place in Amroha which housed shops and restaurants selling meat simply because they believed beef was sold there. The police, who mutely watched the rampage, eventually found that not one place sold or served beef, not even buff (buffalo meat), but the area remained shut for 10 days. After reopening, the owners of most establishments are fighting cases in the local court as police have refused to take back the FIRs under pressure from HYV.
Zaman Charagh Saifi, owner of Prince Hotel, one of the famous restaurants on the street, has shut shop. “It was our passion to serve good food, including vegetarian since we come from a family of cooks who worked for various Nawabs in earlier days. But we are focusing on our more profitable line, growing popular export-quality plants and trees. The hotel was the legacy of our forefathers, so we kept it going though the income was not enough for the extended family. That is why we diversified into (urban) farming a decade ago and are going to stick to it now.”
Saifi still hosts lavish dinners every fortnight for friends, the majority of them Hindus, who keep calling and insisting he open the place again. “Some are lawyers and they insist on fighting our case but we will wait for a year or two to see if we can still run it. Otherwise, the entire profit will go as bribe to the policemen and our time there will only mean loss for the family,” he says.
They understand that being Muslims, they will be direct targets of the police and the administration, as the ruling party has a politico-economic agenda against them. The reasons, contrary to popular perception, are not deep-rooted but extremely shallow. Once the police swung into action against illegal slaughterhouses and meat sellers a sense of triumphalism prevailed among BJP workers across the state. “Sar pe chadha rakha thha in logon ko (They [Muslims] were a pampered lot),” says Rajnish Sharma, a BJP worker from Ghaziabad. He meant the workers have simply wanted to see Muslims in the state suffer, and the police have to toe their line now.
For example, during a night raid at a gau shala (cow shelter) in Bulandshahr district on June 9, police found no evidence of slaughter or smuggling of cows. They rather realised that the owner’s only profession was milk and other dairy products. The complaint was made by a rival, a Hindu, who ran his dairy from the same area along Anupshahr road in the city. Nevertheless, the owner Mushtaq Khan was picked up and charged under various sections that the Hindu rival, led by members of the BJP and HYV, had demanded.
While Khan got bail later as the magistrate found that the charges did not hold prima facie, his business is under strain as the customers, a majority of them Hindus, have stopped buying products as they suspect him to be a cattle smuggler and beef-eater. He claims he has never consumed beef, not that it should have mattered in any case. “The case itself was enough to create doubts. I could keep explaining to them but they still won’t believe me since I am a Muslim after all,” he said. Khan said he paid a bribe of Rs 2 lakh to the police to make sure his family members, including a brother and two sons, were not charged.
While Muslims have always been a strong voter-base in western UP, it is only in the post-liberalisation era that they moved in substantial numbers to the mainstream. The economy in most urban centres like Meerut, Ghaziabad, Muzaffarnagar and even Moradabad was Hindu-dominated till two decades ago, but with the rising wealth from the meat business and an upswing in opportunities in the service industry, the dynamics have changed. Muslims are active players in the worker-class professions and have cashed in on traditional knowledge and hard labour, coupled with a favourable political environment in general. As a result, most urban areas have seen a dominance of Muslims in elections, disturbing the traditional Brahmin-Baniya combination which helped BJP through decades.
“These people have made money by selling cow and buffalo meat but we don’t want to let it go on,” says Chiragh Chaudhary, a BJP worker from Sardhana constituency in Meerut district. Interestingly, the BJP MP from Sardhana Sangeet Singh Som had stakes in two meat export companies in 2015 even as he gave a call to shut slaughterhouses in the district. While he later denied the charges, documentary proof emerged of his investments in the two companies. He eventually withdrew his investment.
Even though cow slaughter has been banned in UP for decades, and only buffalo can be slaughtered, procured and sold, most of which is exported, the call among party workers is for a total ban on meat products sold by Muslims. Work on ensuring this state of satisfaction is in full swing. BJP offices across UP have dedicated teams to keep track of meat shops in their areas and to file complaints against all for one reason or other, conversations with party workers across the state revealed.
In most cases it is the local leaders who solve the problem by calling in the police and complaining that “rules” are not being followed by meat shop owners. Buffalo meat is not sold in any city market in the districts. It is still sold on the outskirts and around villages, the primary purchasers, since it is the cheapest meat. The modus operandi is to complain about “rules and regulations” which are almost never followed, and a demand to implement them by the book.
Officials, especially police, have no option but to examine all the papers for meat shops against which complaints are filed. They too are in a fix, having never bothered to read the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directions of 2015 and other earlier rules. In some cases, they have beaten up residents from the areas where meat shops were being run.
“When we asked if they had a warrant or if there was even a complaint, they said they do not need complaints anymore. There is no beef sold here and all shop owners have licences yet officials regularly harass us, which is why the strike (by meat shop owners of UP) was called in the initial days (of the BJP government),” says Hanif Qureshi, a resident of Patharwalon Ka Mohalla in old Meerut city. He owns a shop that sells chicken and mutton. All meat shop owners, apart from implementing the rules and regulations which largely focus on basic hygiene, have had to pay Rs 2-5 lakhs as bribe to the police and other authorities to reopen shops and keep them running, several people in the meat business told Fountain Ink.
A senior police official speaking on the condition of anonymity, tried to justify the bribe culture.
“Firstly, policemen lose their interest in strict action so unfair harassment does not happen. Secondly, since the person who pays the bribe is hit economically, at least for some months, the politicians and other groups can be told by us that he has been ‘taught a lesson’, which helps pacify them.”
It has been worse for people from areas where buffalo meat is commonly sold, or served at the local eateries. People who work in various labour-intensive factories depend on these hotels for their meals so the closures have hit them. At the Loha Mandi in Ghaziabad recently, people expecting a restaurant to be open where they could have lunch, launched into impromptu sloganeering when police officials were “inspecting papers”; the inspection went on for many hours.
“It was just to tell us that we would go back hungry and that the hotels would not be allowed to open that day, or anytime soon. This is like depriving us of our basic food,” a customer who had come there from many kilometers away for lunch said.
Hearing a case on delays in issuing a licence for a meat shop, the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court said on April 3 that food and trade in foodstuffs is constitutionally guaranteed under the right to live. The Bench of Justices Amreshwar Pratap Sahi and Sanjai Harkauli noted: “To provide an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is indisputably connected with the right to life and livelihood.”
The Bench also said, in the context of the complete ban on the sale of meat products in the state, that it was the state’s duty to ensure the provision of sale of food conducive to health. While government counsel pleaded that the state government was acting on rules set by the NGT and the Supreme Court, the judges said government inaction “should not be a shield for imposing a state of almost prohibition.” The court also criticised the crackdown immediately after the BJP government was sworn in.
AA Bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar ordered in 2015 that slaughterhouses would have to take permission from the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) and/or environmental clearance from the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) besides permission from local authorities to keep running. While UPPCB and SEIAA permissions have generally only been delayed for some time and were granted eventually for most slaughterhouses, the local authorities have not done so. “They are working under BJP leaders and harassing us in order to warm their pockets,” Fahad Hussian a manager at one of the meat export units said. “Every time we implemented NGT guidelines and rules by agencies like the pollution board (and asked for permission locally they demanded huge bribes to grant them. As the government was supportive of us in general, we continued running our units while licence renewals were pending. Now they have found reason to extort more money by sealing our properties and alleging non-compliance of laws.”
A major reason for the delay in licences is that the ward-level politics in various municipalities is dominated by the BJP. Local authorities receive complaints from ward leaders and local-level in-charges of the BJP and decide to deny permission to small shops, large export units and also slaughterhouses under pressure. “We deny the permission to save ourselves from attacks by ward leaders and local BJP goons. When SP was in power they could not be shut down. Now that BJP has come to power in Lucknow, we have no option but to seal them and go over the process all over again,” a senior Meerut Development Authority official said.
“This is nothing but political backlash which is making poor workers jobless. The BJP tried arm-twisting earlier too but did not succeed. Now that it has won, it will do anything to deprive Muslims of economic benefits and opportunities,” a senior SP leader who won his seat from Muzaffarnagar district in the assembly polls alleged, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the urge to implement the rules “by the book” the government ended up encouraging the bureaucracy to exploit businesses. Even regular and licence-holding meat sellers are asked to cough up exorbitant amounts in bribes. Riyaz Mohammad, who ran his chicken shop in sector-9 of Noida, also called the meat market because of the large cluster of meat shops in the area, was asked to deposit Rs 2 lakh with officials of the Noida Authority to open his shop again though the licence issued by the Department of Food Safety and Drug Administration is valid till 2020. “They said this was a security deposit but that no receipt would be given. It is just to ensure that no action is taken against us and our shops remain open. We know this is just a bribe,” he said.
Apart from the authority, police also came calling, asking him to shell out Rs 50,000 as bribe-cum-security deposit. “Their argument was that the rate to be paid to police has gone up and it would now be backdated to 2014 when BJP came to power at the Centre,” Mohammad said. It entails a monthly payment of Rs 500-1000 per shop, which was only Rs 200 earlier. Police have asked meat sellers to pay the revised rate, which means depositing Rs 10,000-30,000 per shop depending on its size and sales, as well as hefty amounts as security to ensure no action is taken against them in the near future.
Junaid Ahmed, who represents many pockets of Noida and Ghaziabad in the loosely organised UP meat sellers’ union, says, “They have told us no shop will open without these bribes. We fear they will act on the smallest complaint received even if we manage to open on the basis of legal paperwork. Such complaints can be concocted or politically motivated as the BJP workers want to see us suffer. It is extortion.”
Meat sellers across the state, especially in the National Capital Region (NCR) districts of Noida, Ghaziabad and Meerut have held dharnas outside the offices of District Magistrates as well as police headquarters and demanded that extortion in the name of law and order be stopped, but to no avail.
A senior police official from Ghaziabad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that when “notebandi” (demonetisation) happened many policemen lost their savings. “Many even gave money back to a lot of people and distributed it among relatives or even shop owners from their areas. This is an opportunity to earn some of it back.” So meat sellers simply have to compensate for the empty pockets of the police.
Lokesh Mishra, a BJP worker from Vijay Nagar in Ghaziabad, says, “Under the previous rule these meat sellers openly sided with SP or BSP but not BJP. They would arm-twist the police by opening shops all over the district without procuring licences. Now that police are cracking down they are making all sorts of noises about exploitation. They deserve it.”
Political patronage has allowed police and administration officials to implement their own rules and terms of engagement on the ground.
Most of the meat sellers did get licences from the state government, under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006. Ahmed, the meat sellers’s union member said, “Very few meat shop owners among the people I know were running their shops without licences. Police are working to extort money despite that.” Among the shop owners from the meat market area in sector-9, for example, 47 have been forced to shut though all have licences and permissions valid till at least next year; many got licences renewed only last year and so can run their shops till 2021, as per the law.
The plight of owners whose licences expired recently is worse. They have been asked to deposit between Rs 3-5 lakh as “security” which is non-refundable. Hearing a petition on the delay in issuing licences to meat shop owners, the Allahabad High Court came down heavily on the government. Pulling it up for maladministration in the civic bodies, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court issued an order on April 3 directing it to ensure that licences of mutton and chicken shops, which expired on March 31, are renewed within a week. The bench also issued orders that the administration must also provide facilities for a slaughterhouse for goats and chicken every two kilometres within 10 days.
The bribe economy in India has been a subject of extensive research among corruption-watch groups over many years. The root cause is said to be the vulnerability of people to extortion and delay in action. There is, however, little work on establishing the way police run the bribe economy.
“It’s fine to say that the money goes right up to the top of the ladder but one has to understand that when exchange of large amounts of money is in question, there has to be a systematic approach to the economics, which is where policemen, more than even the various administration officials, have become experts and developed a tier-based system of division,” said former IPS officer Vikramjit Singh.
The first tier is the most efficiently worked out in the police system. It starts at the chowki level, where fresh recruits are posted under supervision of the seniors from the corresponding police stations. The manager who oversees every chowki at the local level is called the “thekedaar” (contractor) and is usually a constable or head constable. In general, senior men with experience of the system are given this role. The job of the contractor is to coordinate with every shopkeeper or vendor or an applicant who comes in with the request for local security check before opening a roadside stall. The thekedaar manages the bribes as per the rates fixed by the corresponding Station House officer (SHO) of the police station and is the head of the chowki-level dealings too.
The contractor is accompanied by young recruits during his rounds where he demands the regular payments due to the police; such trips are usually termed “ugaahi”. The young men are expected to learn the tricks of the trade during these routines as future thekedaars come from among them. During the rounds the money due from every person in the area under the police station is to be collected and accounted for in diaries which are usually maintained on a yearly or bi-yearly basis.
“These books are maintained from Diwali to Holi and then again from Holi to Diwali every year. Sometimes if the thekedaar is a Muslim he chooses to do so between the Eids. Most thekedaars prefer a yearly diary from Diwali to Diwali or as per the economic financial year,” says a constable posted in Noida’s sector-24 police station. He is in training to be a thekedaar. The money collected is usually divided into half, to be kept as reserve in case transfers are ordered and bribes are to be paid at the higher echelons of the department for stalling or delaying them.
Every police station has a “rate” and the SHO usually gets to pick his own team if he can come up with the going rate for a particular police station. This is the second tier of the system, the most ruthless. The money demanded here is from complainants or culprits, even victims. Rameshwar Prasad, who retired as SHO of Surajpur police station in Greater Noida a few years ago, said, “Three things have to kept in mind when deciding the rate for a police station—the demographics and social standard of the location, business and other infrastructure and the number of complaints that come in, which means civil and criminal cases filed per year on average.”
Surajpur scores three ticks on all these parameters: it is the most important police station in Greater Noida, an upcoming mega city with a healthy middle class and upper-middle class population; it is seeing a boom in commercial establishments as the urban space expands; and it is on the edge of old Surajpur town, notorious for crimes, so there are a large number of complaints of robbery, thefts, etc.
While refusing to disclose the bribe he paid when he took charge, Prasad said, “Let me just say it was over a crore (rupees) and has since gone into some crores.” This money, he says, is collected by the SHO during his tenure in previous postings. He and his subordinates, the sub-inspectors, are always on the lookout for cases where money can be made as everyone hopes for a better posting.
“Those happy with the posting, mostly the ones closer to home, settle by making less and their records are automatically maintained as such by the thekedaar. Others who are honest do not take money but policemen gift them some money as bonus during festivals just to keep them in the circle lest they complain against others,” Prasad said The youngest men at a police station are allowed to make money for their “pocket expenses” by deployment at checkpoints on the roads and at commercial establishments or public places like colleges.
The top tier, led by IPS officers, is where big money exchanges hands. There is no limit to the amount that can be transacted in a single deal. Like the police station, there is a thekedaar at the district level, too, selected at the discretion of the senior-most officer. In cases the officer is honest the next in line gets to choose the thekedaar.
“These thekedaars travel with their bosses and get transferred with them, or the bosses develop a team from across the state on recommendations from men they trust. The accounts they maintain have to reserve the bulk of the money for the higher-ups in Lucknow who decide on postings,” said Singh.
When the Adityanath government came to power, its first major step, like all new governments, was to place officers seen close to it in senior-most posts in most areas. The government first targeted officers in high posts, especially at SHO-levels across the state. Since a majority happened to be Yadavs or were close to the former SP government, there was a protest within the department on the targeting of officers from a particular community. Naresh Yadav, a sub-inspector at the Greater Noida police station before being transferred, said, “The problem was that this government hardly knew the policemen working on the ground and had no reports on them, neither did they bother to scrutinise their work. Even honest officers who just happened to be Yadavs were given punishment postings.”
But this is no surprise, says Singh, which is why despite reports in the Hindi media on the targeting of Yadav officers, there was no action by the department or the government. In all, at least 100 top-level IPS officers and hundreds other lower-ranked officers have been transferred in the months since the BJP came to power.
Most officers had expected such transfers, which is why immediately after the government took the oath, street vendors, meat sellers, slaughter houses, vegetable sellers, and even shopkeepers were asked to pay up. It was a last-ditch attempt to stuff their pockets ahead of the expected unfavourable transfers. People like Anand Mahto, Zahoor Ahmad and Riyaz Mohammad were the victims of this phenomenon. Immediately after the transfers and the takeover from the new thekedaars rates have again been raised and the new regime has started its extortion drive now.
Arpit Parashar is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.
The cover story of the July 2017 issue of Fountain Ink.