ABOUT eight years ago, a friend’s car was stolen from outside his house in Lahore. He went to the police immediately. It took all his connections and three days of effort to get a First Information Report (FIR) registered.
About a month later, he received a phone call from the concerned police station to let him know that his car had been ‘recovered’ and that he could come and collect it. The car was a bit battered and rundown, but it was all there. It seemed the police had recovered it a week or 10 days prior to calling my friend and had been using it in the meantime. It took my friend another 10 days to get possession of his car.
This would still have been a happy story had it ended there. But it did not. Since no one had been arrested or convicted for the crime of stealing my friend’s car, the FIR he had registered remained open. The car was evidence and my friend was told that he could have his car back but he would be responsible for producing it anytime the police or the courts needed it. Eight years later, my friend is still saddled with the car. He would like to sell it but he cannot. Though he has never been contacted by the police or the courts since, his possession still continues to be conditional. He could sell the car at a steep discount but my law-abiding friend is concerned: what if they ask him to produce it someday?
On issues that matter to the citizen, nothing seems to have changed at the police station.
He did inquire about the process of getting the FIR quashed and the matter disposed of, but he felt he did not have the time, money or the connections to pull it off. He is resigned to the fact that this car will stay with him ‘till death do them part’.
Another acquaintance had a similar experience. But, eventually, after a year of spending a lot of time and money in the concerned police station and lower courts, he was able to have the authorities close the case and was then able to sell his car. But even after everything was done, he was not sure if all proceedings had been carried out legally and if the paper he had received was enough.
It is no surprise that when, quite recently, another friend’s car was stolen, he worked on ensuring that his vehicle was not recovered. Instead, he worked on getting the requisite paperwork from the concerned police station so that he could get his insurance claim processed and just buy a new car. He took a hit of a few hundred thousand rupees but he felt that the loss incurred was still more tolerable than the hassle of waiting for his car to be recovered and then going through the process of getting the FIR quashed etc.
Why do the police need the physical car as evidence even in this day and age? Could documents, photos and other evidence not be substituted for the original? There must other ways of dealing with the quashing of an FIR as well.
There has been a lot of talk, recently, of how new technology has been introduced at police stations and law enforcement, and how citizen help desks have been set up for almost everything. Yet, on issues that matter to the citizen, especially when it comes to interaction with the police station staff, almost nothing seems to have changed.
A couple of years ago, a gentleman I know was held up inside one of the ATMs he was visiting. The robbers made him use all his cards to their limit and left him poorer by a couple of hundred thousand rupees in the process. He had an FIR registered. As is usually the case, it took much effort to do so. The police asked him to get video recordings from the cameras at the ATM. The gentleman had to convince his bank to share the relevant video recording with the police station.
He visited the police station three to four weeks later to check on the progress that had been made on his case. To his astonishment, his photo was also displayed on the police station noticeboard as a wanted person. “Whoever was in the camera footage that we got, we have put their picture up. It is for the courts to decide who is guilty of these and who is not,” said the station house officer. The gentleman has never been back at the station and he has heard nothing about the case from the police. He is quite glad he has not heard back from the police.
Having facilitation desks, technology and new rules over and above an existing but archaic system does not solve problems. In fact, it complicates things further. If your car is stolen, Dolphin and other police personnel can be there in less than 10 minutes now. But if they still need an FIR first to be able to move, and the FIR is going to be registered in the old way, you are still giving the robbers a 36- to 48-hour head start, even if you are very connected. What is the point of new personnel and technology here?
Of late, I have been reading Osama Siddique’s new novel Snuffing Out the Moon. It is a historical fiction spread over six epochs: Mohenjodaro, Taxila, Jahangir’s time, 1857, 2009 and 2084. A key theme that runs through the novel is that irrespective of the form of government, the lack of space for citizens to participate effectively in governance or work out even decent, let alone optimal, governance arrangements for the people creates most of the problems that citizens face. Those in power seldom have an interest in addressing the issue, and so the citizens continue to struggle.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2017