How law enforcers crack down on crime in Madurai

At 11 on Saturday night when it is raining, we’re not expected to be zipping across empty roads in Oomatchikulam in a white Tata Sumo. But tonight we are on night patrol with the men who put their lives on the line every day so that we can sleep in peace.In the vehicle are Oomatchikulam police station Inspector R. Muthu Kumar, a Sub-Inspector, two constables and the driver. “S.I. 3 Thirumangalam, respond please,” comes the command from a walkie-talkie fitted to the front dashboard. It reels out accident messages, duty reporting schedules and other announcements. We reel under a heady mix of trepidation, anxiety, fear and excitement. One thought dominates -- will something happen or not?

In reality, nothing riveting occurs. This part of town is relatively quiet tonight. Or perhaps we are plain lucky to have escaped a chase, a rescue from a burning house, a crime scene investigation or even a family squabble.

The driver screeches to a halt next to five chirpy young boys walking in Bama Nagar. “What are you doing here at this time of the night?” the Inspector asks. Their jaws drop and they fall silent. Their identity cards reveal they are ITI students staying in a hostel and they are let off.

The streets around Naganakulam Tank are poorly lit and deserted. Lights are off in most homes. “Our SP conducted a camp in these localities and urged residents to appoint Gurkhas as night watchmen,” the Inspector says as we pull over by a man guarding the bungalows. He peers into the vehicle and the Inspector enquires, “Enna pa, anything wrong?” “Illa Sir,” he says.

“This is a good public initiative to work in tandem with the police. Community policing builds trust, helps to prevent crime and benefits all,” says Inspector Muthu Kumar.

At the Iyer Bungalow checkpost, with two constables and one SI on duty, seven traffic offenders wait near the neon-red ‘Halt and Go’ sign. The two car drivers and five bike riders are being checked for drunken driving and licenses. Two are booked. “Speeders and other motorists breaking the law are the most common offences recorded at checkposts,” Mr. Muthu Kumar says.

We cruise around known trouble spots in the area for another 30 minutes. The first round of night patrol stretches over 7 km, covering four checkposts, a dozen residential areas, 70 streets and hundreds of houses. By the time we return, the Oomatchikulam police station is deserted. Constable Murugan, the writer, sits alone attending calls, noting control room messages and recording the evening’s cases. The scene was very different when we started out. The adjacent room of the Sub-Inspector was full of people -- complainants, cops, culprits and Friends of Police.

Earlier, Superintendent of Police (Madurai district) V. Balakrishnan briefed us. Targeting anti-social behaviour and maintaining a positive atmosphere in the area are key night operations, he told us. The staff are told to look out for key offenders and assigned areas to keep an eye on.

Oomatchikulam jurisdiction spreads over a radius of 10 km covering 48 villages and 5 lakh people. It is infamous for property offences, break-ins and street brawls and on an average registers 1,400 cases a year. The police station is manned by one inspector, four SIs, eight special SIs and 37 others including constables and head constables, said SP Balakrishnan.

We imagined the police station to be a bright red brick building dimmer on the inside, criminals in lock-ups, intimidating enquiries. The station turned out to be small and cramped but brightly lit. Six SIs and 10 constables find place in three rooms which are also occupied by creaky fans, rickety chairs, wooden desks with shaky legs and racks with dusty files.

A detailed map of Oomachikulam station range and a duty chart hang on the wall beside a calendar with a picture of Lord Muruga. “Kavalthurai ungal Nanban,” says a painted sign. The policeman is your friend.

We are met at the entry by SI Devendran Kumar, a convivial man with a broad grin. He defies our image of angry young Amitabh in Zanjeer or Vijaykanth in Vallarasu. Piles of registers, files, papers, charts and maps lie on his desk and he is looking into a sheet. “It is for the upcoming Thevar Jayanthi,” he says. The sensitive occasion may send a chill down the spine but he treats it like any other procession. Probably his 27 years of service have made him thick-skinned. “Tackling violence is part of our life. We are always on our toes expecting anything anywhere,” he says. “Last week, there was a sudden call from Alangulam late in the night following a bus that was damaged in a petty fight. That area is notorious for criminals.”

A bad neighbourhood can be a hard place to live in, but it is an even tougher place to patrol. SI Devendran’s job is also to meet the public to build a relationship of trust and it seems to have worked. People come and list their grievances -- An old lady complains of a dispute with her tenant, another man has problems with a neighbouring shopkeeper, a husband and wife file separate complaints of harassment and infidelity against each other, a daughter complains against her alcoholic father.

The only woman SI, G. Kavitha, arrives at 9 p.m. “I patrol the streets on my motorbike,” she says. “Extension areas are notorious for petty thefts, crimes and house break-ins. I love my job. It never stops.” She has been a cop for 13 years.

The team disperses by 10 p.m. on their two-wheelers, wielding lathis and pistols. “Since we go for night rounds in pairs, we share the petrol cost,” says SI K. Chandramohan. “It is easy to attend to complaints during nights as we are already on our rounds and can reach the spot immediately,” says SI Jeen Kumar.

Though many perks and facilities are still wanting, police departments take pride in modernisation and professionalism. “Once, a person was murdered in 1996 in Oomachikulam station,” says SI Devendran, pointing to the now-defunct building. Dark and unkempt, it evokes an eerie feeling. “It’s set for renovation. Soon we will have a new building.” (City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).