Thursday , 14 November 2019

Interview with: Harish Baijal, A crusade against drunk-driving The Mumbai Experiment

Early 2008, on testing positive for drunk driving at Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai, an investment banker threw notes worth Rs 2000 on the traffic constable who had apprehended him. Harish Baijal, the then Deputy Commissioner of Police (Traffic), was so miffed with the audacity of the Honda Accord owner that he personally argued the case in court resulting in the banker’s imprisonment for ten days and suspension of his licence for six months.

Baijal, who is today the Superintendent of Police (Anti-Corruption Bureau) at Nashik, successfully spearheaded an anti drunk-driving campaign in Mumbai between 2007 and 2009 that resulted in the apprehending of 36,000 people and conviction of 31,000. Out of these, 17,000 were imprisoned while the licences of 32,000 were suspended.

While answering TrafficInfraTech’s questions at his jam-packed Nashik office amid accepting congratulations from visitors on arresting two senior officers for accepting bribe the previous day, this self-effacing police officer made it more than apparent that changing the mindset of the people matters the most in reducing drunk driving.

Was your stint as DCP (Traffic) in Mumbai your first brush with handling traffic?

When I took over as the Deputy Commissioner of Police in Mumbai on June 6, 2005, I had had no experience of traffic management. Perhaps traffic is one department which is not liked much by senior officials. However, I continued there for four years!

In 2006, I noticed that the number of fatal accidents was on the rise. I started visiting the accident sites to learn of the causes. By doing so, I could take some preventive measures as far as the driver, vehicle and the road were concerned. If the driver is at fault we, the policemen, can take some action as our authorities include enforcement but when it comes to licensing, we do not have control over it as we are not aware of the parameters on the basis of which the RTO issues licences. So instead of going into somebody else’s area, we decided to concentrate on our area of operation. Hence, wherever we found a fault with the road, we would take it up with the concerned department. For instance, during the 2008 monsoon, 128 accidents took place in just one month on the Eastern Express Highway. The road surface used to become slippery after the rainfall. This was certainly not in our hands. What was in our hands was to cut down the speed of vehicles and we did that quite effectively with the help of barriers, cones and speed breakers. However, the permanent solution lay in the hands of MMRDA which chiseled and roughened the road surface. So you have to work on preventive measures in tandem with various departments.

So how did you get into tackling drunk-driving?

We noticed that 35-40% of fatal accidents were due to drunk-driving. The police force was deployed at checkpoints to check on rash driving only once in a fortnight or a month or, on occasions like the New Year’s Eve. Perhaps this was due to shortage of manpower. This periodical monitoring was also considered to be an additional work. Personally, I began to feel responsible for not preventing these accidents.

The turning point came on March 24, 2007 when six vehicles collided at Four Bungalows leading to two casualties. It was a huge accident. Four of the drivers were found to be drunk. We realised that we had to speed up our actions, instead of waiting for some other agency to intervene.

We decided to keep a watch on the youngsters first. Normally, after passing out of standard 12, students gain a new sense of freedom and get into a celebratory mood. So on the night of June 8, 2008 when the HSC results were announced, we kept a vigil. From Bandra to Borivli (which were in my jurisdiction), we put up check posts for drunk drivers at eight divisions as a test case. Out of the 60 drivers we apprehended, 80% were youngsters. JCP Satish Mathur was shocked with the results because even the night of December 31 had never thrown up such figures. We wondered that if this was the situation just in eight divisions, what figure would the entire city throw up! Mumbai has 25 traffic divisions. To manage manpower for this purpose, we decided to deploy personnel who were on their weekly off. Now, instead of going home at 11.30pm the previous night, they could go home at 2.30pm.

The next step was to get all our breath analysers serviced, calibrated and certified. On June 22, we discreetly deployed the policemen on a large scale from 11pm till 2am and apprehended around 222 people. After that night, all the senior officers got fully charged up on this exercise and we began feeding information to the press.

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