The Railway Protection Force (RPF) held 11 lakh miscreants for stealing railway property in 2016, screamed the headlines of one of the popular dailies recently. This is about 300 thefts per day which would seldom otherwise make the news.
The stolen property included 'Pandrol' steel clips which hold the steel rail to the sleeper, fishplates, bolts etc, all vital track fittings the absence of which could result in derailments, as had happened in UP a few months ago.
These steel items may fetch the thief about Rs 15 a kg but can end up in human casualty and crores in damage to rolling stock, not to mention the massive disruption to rail traffic which could take weeks to recover.
Such thefts were restricted not only to rail fittings but also special fittings on electrified sections, such as copper cables which would fetch a handsome price in the market for scrap metals.
Thieves, reportedly mostly drug addicts, even stole blankets from air-conditioned coaches, bathroom fittings, and tube lights from passenger coaches whenever they are stabled in the yard where security is often lax, if not totally absent.
Maharashtra seems to be leading the pack with 2.23 lakh arrests, followed by UP with 1.22 lakh, and Madhya Pradesh about a lakh. Tamil Nadu and Gujarat also had their fair share of arrests, 81,408 and 77,047, respectively.
The Railway Protection Force established under the RPF Act in 1957 is entrusted with protecting railway passengers, passenger area and railway property of the Indian Railways. The 65,000-strong force is spread over various Zonal Railways and is commanded by 441 group 'A' officers headed by a Director General in the Railway Board.
In addition, about 36,000-strong Government Railway Police (GRP), an arm of the state police is charged with maintaining law and order in railway premises and on running trains.
While Section 12 of the RPF Act authorises even a 'rakshak' - a foot soldier of RPF - to search and arrest without a warrant, Section 14 requires that "Any member of the Force making an arrest under this Act, shall without unnecessary delay, make over the person so arrested to a police officer, or in the absence of a police officer, take such person or cause him to be taken to the nearest police station."
The RPF's core mandate is protection of railway property, but law and order is a state subject with the GRP reporting to its political bosses in the state. While action against crime sometimes involves inter-state coordination, the GRP seldom follows through such a crime to its logical conclusion unless a VIP has been involved or the all-powerful Home Ministry steps in.
For the states, agreeing to have the GRP report to the Ministry of Railways is simply unthinkable and they have also opposed the idea of converting the RPF into a federal police force. The Standing Committee on Railways on safety and security found in December 2016 that out of the 26 states who responded, 17 had opposed such a proposed amendment on various grounds.
Needless to say, the Home Ministry was not in favour either. Further, in their opinion, "Empowering the RPF with police powers may also disturb the constitutional scheme of distribution of powers and would run counter to the concept of co-operative federalism."
For the police, maintaining law and order in the state is a top priority and only the second best of personnel and officers get sent to the GRP. However, with the GRP not answerable to the Railways, which they are charged to serve, a unique ambiguous state of affairs exists which has escaped any resolution so far.
Not having powers of a police force is, perhaps, the Achilles heel of the RPF which makes it ineffective in checking incidents of theft of railway property.
There is seldom any follow up action on such arrests, including apprehending receivers of such stolen property who continue to thrive, often in connivance with the state police.
Meanwhile, crime on railway premises, including in running trains, and petty thefts of railway property, which can often lead to major mishaps involving heavy human casualties and disruption to rail traffic, will, unfortunately, continue unabated.
(The writer is former Member, Railway Board)