Front-men for a Barton Hill colony-based gang have this week served scores of traders in Palayam donation receipts ranging from Rs.1,250 to Rs.5,000 in the name of the Attukal Pongala festival, scheduled to be held on February 26.

A set of traders told The Hindu that the gang had decided the donation amounts on their own. The gang told traders that the donation amount they fixed for each trader was non-negotiable, and that it should be paid at the earliest.

The “unsigned” receipts have been issued in the name of “Palayam Brothers”, a group of men whose paymasters have been contracted by the Municipal Corporation (through competitive bidding) to collect fees from hawkers who vend goods at the market and from shoppers who use the market’s parking lot and public lavatories.

The traders said most of them heeded the “annual extortion bid” to buy protection from the gang, which had often demonstrated its power to harass traders who challenged or disobeyed their diktats. The police had turned a blind eye to one of the most barefaced protection rackets in the city, despite several anonymous complaints in the past years.

They said the gang had been literally “running” the market for the past three years. Its clout extended to the local offices of the Municipality.

A senior citizen said the gang closed the parking lot to the public three or four days prior to the festival to erect a temporary stage. The band has also appropriated much of the corridor space in the Saphalyam Complex to run small businesses.

Every year, the gang collected at least Rs.10 lakh from local businesses in the name of the festival. However, they rarely published the accounts.

City Police Commissioner P. Vijayan said the police would take “very seriously” any complaint of extortion of money from citizens in the name of religious festivals or otherwise.

He said he had ordered his plainclothesmen to investigate complaints regarding extortion in the name of the festival.