Nepali Times
Crime and the city


Daman Bahadur Sakya blames his karma. Last week 933 grams of gold worth Rs 725,000 was robbed at khukuri point from his New Road workshop. "Who can I hold responsible?" he asks. With the clear vision of hindsight, Sakya knows he should have invested in a security system. "We haven't spoken about it yet but I will probably set up something now. After what happened to me, other shops in the area are also more aware about security measures," says Sakya, who takes comfort in the fact that his workers are above suspicion.

This lack of general awareness is what irks DSP Mahesh Bikram Shah. "It seems like the public deliberately turns a blind eye," he says. After 14 years on the force, he does not see Kathmandu residents protecting themselves against crime. An expert in crime scene investigation with advanced training in England, Shah believes that almost all crime in the Valley, including murder, is related to property.

A look at crime in the Valley shows that in the last nine months there have been 21 reported murders, less than half of the number brought to police notice last year. The most worrying wave of criminal activity currently gripping Kathmandu and the nation is armed robbery. With the ceasefire most people expected the restoration of a general sense of security, but reports of thieves claiming to be Maoists and the ransacking of homes has increased. In early April, armed robbers got away with more than Rs 1 million in a single night from three villages in Bara district.

Shah believes that more often than not these are gangs of professional thieves who hide behind the reputation of the Maoists to avoid investigation. The people are afraid to antagonise the robbers and fear reprisals if incidents are reported to the police. Eyewitnesses say the gangs pose as security personnel before entering the house. Once inside they declare themselves to be Maobadis, take what they want and leave-sometimes after physically and verbally abusing the women of the house. These incidents are increasingly becoming common along towns that border India. But whether in the Valley or outside, police statistics confirm that armed robbery has increased since the ceasefire.

The police run awareness programs on NTV and Radio Nepal and are involved in community police programs. Shah recognises that the police are the public's frontline defence against crime, but he insists a little commonsense and awareness can go a long way to preventing most crimes. He believes the media, pressure groups, NGOs and the municipality can all work with the police to fight crime. "We must realise that society is the victim because we nurture both the criminal and the casualty."

There are no studies on Nepali criminal psychology or behaviour so we are left to draw tenuous links between a rise in unemployment, large-scale urban migration from rural areas and few chances of bettering economic prospects through the straight and narrow. In the meanwhile, break-ins, the most popular crime, occur almost every day. The reduced number of security patrols after the state of emergency ended in November last year has encouraged thieves. It doesn't help when police vehicles in hot pursuit get bottlenecked in the narrow lanes and alleys of the city, break down or are simply unable to locate the house. It is little wonder that people are beginning to feel isolated. "I feel solely responsible for the lives of my family and property," says a house owner in Ghattekulo, a locality in the capital infamous for robberies.

Perhaps this sense of alienation is the reason why many homes and businesses are hiring trained guards and setting up electronic systems. When NK Pradhan of Pradhan Security began his company 30 years ago it was among the first of its kind. His early clients were mostly expatriates, but today many Nepalis have signed up for his services which include hiring out trained guards on contract and security consultancy. The increase in crime has led to more security companies in the Valley. "Today there are more manual security agencies than we can count. To keep up we have improved our training and services and have maintained our quality," says Milan Pradhan, a staff member at Pradhan Security. The team there is well looked after, receiving accidental insurance and 30 day sick leave. No guard goes longer than a 12 hour shift and is paid overtime after an 8 hour day. But not everyone can afford to hire guards and unfortunately, even they are not always an effective deterrent. The guards of some agencies have even been accused of sleeping on the job and providing inside information- which is perhaps a reason why companies are so reluctant to talk to the press. The latest way to fortify yourself is high-tech electronic security systems that are not that expensive and complement manual security (see The electronic eye).

But at the end of the day, crime busting is a police job. The newly formed Armed Robbery Investigation Team may help take some of the pressure off the Valley Crime Investigation Branch (VCIB). Specially trained sniffer dogs are also helping track down criminals. Dandapani Bhattarai, a trainer at the police dog squad, says even after 24 hours, a scene can bear traces of a thief. Sniffer dogs are now used in Dharan, Pokhara and Kathmandu. Jaganath Khanal of the Crime Investigation Department at Hanumandhoka says the police have a 70 percent success rate and it's just a matter of time before the thieves are given away by their friends or caught trying to sell the stolen goods.

With one theft or burglary a day to contend with, the 123 VCIB investigators for a civilian population of over 1.6 million are spread very thin-a ratio of 1:13,377. The budget of the VCIB has not been upgraded since it was established ten years ago. They only have enough resources to run the office and no separate budget for investigations, transport and communications systems. The investigators rely on the public to help them solve their cases.

Recently there have been allegations that the police are unsympathetic, even uncooperative. Many victims have complained that the police illegally asked for fees to process their case. Last year when Binay Buddhatokhi was robbed, he went to file a case at Hanumandhoka but left without doing so after the police asked him for "kharcha-paani". The police were not willing to make an official comment on the subject. DSP Shah argues that in a police force of 50,000, there are bound to be those who are not up-to-scratch with regard to friendliness. "My own experience is that society encourages police brutality. They demand that confessions be coerced out of suspects. 'Break some bones,' they say, and yell when I don't indulge their request. The police are a reflection of society's demands."

Better safe

"Alertness is key," says DSP Shah. Statistics show 75 percent of domestic burglaries occur when no one is home. The biggest incentive for burglars is the lure of easily resold gold and jewellery that people keep in homes despite the safety of security lockers in banks. Preventive measures like keeping a dog, or if that isn't possible, a bluff sign saying "Beware of the dog" help. Keep a photo and identity kit of tenants and restrict all social visits to the ground floor of your house. Don't leave doors open or let in strangers till you are certain about their credentials. Keep valuables either at the bank or in a safe, install grills on windows and bright lights around the house. Thieves in the capital are adept at removing latches and grills, so poorly secured windows and doors, dim lighting and low or no boundary walls just make their jobs easier. If the thief is already inside a room try and trap him in and call the police at phone number 100 immediately.

The electronic eye

Gone are the days when the neighbourhood mutt secured your premises in exchange for a scrap of meat. Sometimes even guards armed with sticks are no match for stealthy intruders. Noting this gap in security, two years ago Shrish Man Vaidya went out on a limb and opened Security Solutions, an electronic security business. Trained in Calcutta by Hawk Securities, he is now the local distributor of sophisticated devices made in Britain and the US. His company offers a large number of electronic gadgets to suit different budgets. "I can't understand why people who invest Rs 4 million in a car won't secure their homes for a mere Rs 20,000," he says.

His comparison charts show that a year of manual security adds up to more than the one-time cost of installing an electronic system in the long run. He believes the two can complement each other for "double safety". The business community has shown the most interest and his latest clients include the Vaidya Organisation and Shikar Manpower. Fahim Shah of the latter says, "It is a little expensive initially but very reliable, unlike Chinese products. Their response is also immediate." Excellent after-sale service is something Vaidya boasts proudly about along with a warranty and good technical support from installation to management. Vaidya's company even conducts detailed surveys and suggests economic ways of securing premises.

Security Solutions faces a serious challenge from cheap Chinese products that have flooded the market. They have no after-sale technical support or warranty, but are cheap. He says, "Most people are not open to the idea of electronic security but people must wake up to the fact that in the present context it is not a luxury but a necessity."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)