Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Robbers turn benefactors

by Alamgir Hossain

Robbers who once terrorised a stretch of a national highway in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, first became its protectors and now want to use the money they collect from passing trucks to build a girls’ school in the area.

The former criminals have collected about Rs 700,000 over the past six years, charging trucks plying through the 10-km stretch of NH 34 a sort of protection fee. Receipts for Rs 5, 10 or 20 are given to drivers in the name of the Paribahan Suraksha (transport security) Committee.
In 1999, Shamsergunj police had set up the “resistance group” mostly with local criminals to control rising incidents of robbery and snatching along the highway.

The drive proved very effective as no crime has been reported from the stretch, about 300 km from Calcutta, in all these years.

The police said there is “nothing illegal” in the fees they collect. “They are doing a good job,” said superintendent Rahul Srivastava.

Nurul Biswas, whose five trucks could at best make two trips a day to Pakur — 30 km away — with sand or stone chips, said: “I’m very happy. Now my trucks can make five trips.”

Abbas Sheikh, 30, who is facing trial in connection with several robberies and is on bail, is also very happy. “Six years ago, we were all on the run,” he said.

The committee has already bought an ambulance and a breakdown van with the money it has saved. But the school is the former robbers’ ultimate aspiration. Like Abbas, Jaga Sheikh and Kota Sheikh are excited about it.

Children from a dozen villages now have one school to go to — Bhasai Paikar Co-educational School. Many girls in this Muslim-dominated area drop out after a certain age because the school is co-ed.

“Parents are not always willing to let their daughters study with boys,” said Mansur Ali, a teacher who is also the secretary of the committee of former criminals.

The district police chief said he would personally help the committee set up the school.

Ali said the money was collected with the objective of doing “some good work” later. “We earn about Rs 7,500 every day and we save a lot even after paying the 75 guards. The school is our dream,” said Ali.

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