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Footprints: Chips to the rescue

Updated September 13, 2015

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AT the Anti-Car Lifting Cell (ACLC) one can observe the difference in the set-up of its office on main Aiwan-i-Saddar Road.

Giant LCDs hang on the walls and monitors show digital maps of the city in a room where once only the hissing sounds of wireless sets were heard. The reason I have come to this specialised unit of the Karachi police is unfolding around me.

A few policemen surround young IT experts before multiple monitors at one corner; at another, several more are being briefed by another group of youngsters on the digital mapping of the city.

This is almost a round-the-clock exercise these days at the ACLC –– battling to bring down motorcycle theft and snatching incidents in the city. This problem has not declined much despite the ongoing “targeted operation” that is taking on mainly terrorism, targeted killings, extortion and kidnappings for ransom.

“We have taken a tracking company on board these days,” says SP Irfan Bahadur of the ACLC. “In 2014, on an average, between 70 and 80 motorbikes were snatched or stolen every day. We tracked down a number of groups and individuals involved in the crime over the past few months and arrested dozens of suspects. This resulted in a significant drop in the crime but still there is a need to further tighten our network.”

To do this, the ACLC has invited in Moto Track, a vehicle tracking company, to introduce devices for two-wheelers.

The police team, which has so far been keeping an eye on car thieves and robbers through tracking devices, is now rapidly learning the modern technology for motorbikes, more than one and a half million of which run on this city’s roads.

During the past few weeks, the police traced a number of motorbike thieves through the test project. The idea was simple, as I come to know when I look into the law enforcement agency’s ongoing project to break one of the most organised criminal rackets in the city.

“Just equip a few motorbikes with tracking devices, park them across the city at places identified as hot spots of motorbike theft and then wait for them to be lifted,” explains SP Bahadur. “We tracked all those bikes through the devices we installed and recovered them in the Manghopir, Sachal, Gulshan-i-Hadeed and Orangi Town areas, and arrested the lifters,” he tells me.

“This is thanks to modern technology. We have a digital mapping system in our office to keep connected with the vehicles’ locations through GPRS electronic surveillance.”

For the ACLC, the test project has proved a success. The tracking devices have allowed them to realise that motorcycles lifted in Karachi make their way to different cities in Sindh and even to some remote areas of Balochistan. “With the help of these devices, we have recovered bikes even in Khuzdar and arrested the suspects,” says SP Bahadur.

A few days later, I am at the newly-built Karachi Police Office (KPO) along the main Sharea Faisal, where city police chief Mushtaq Mahar is being briefed by ACLC officials and Moto Track executives on the exercise.

Mr Mahar is impressed but the question of persuading a majority of more than one and a half million motorbike owners to install tracking devices remains unanswered. To assess the prospects of the tracking system, I speak to a few motorbike owners.

Having lost a bike at gunpoint more than a year ago, Asim Siddiqi is willing to equip his two-wheeler with a tracker if it doesn’t cost him much. For Irfan Raza, a tracker would be useful in saving his Rs45,000 bike but he’s not yet fully confident about the technology.

“I have heard about the four-wheelers tracking system,” he says. “But the thieves are smart enough to counter every technology and they did it quite well with car trackers. I am not against this technology, but it should be effective.”

“We face a serious manpower challenge,” Mr Mahar tells me. “We believe the gap we face can be filled through technological support. It’s a fact that motorbike theft has not dropped to the level we would like it to. The tracking system can help to a large extent and owners have to bear a very nominal cost for that.”

During the first six months of the year, more than 2,500 motorbikes were stolen in different areas of the city; all this happened while the Rangers and the police were busy chasing criminals, extortionists and gangsters for two years and killed more than 2,000 suspects in “encounters”.

The recently introduced tracking device for motorbikes and round-the-clock surveillance system at the ACLC office emerge as a major tool for the law enforcement agency to curb the menace. The meeting at the KPO suggests that the police are determined to pursue the project more seriously.

“Call a meeting of motorbike manufacturers and dealers,” tells the city police chief to his subordinates. “We should persuade them to devise a joint strategy that how the tracking device can be made common and popular in at least brand-new bikes.”

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2015

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