It was a late Saturday evening in March and the traffic signal at Maitri Park in Chembur, Mumbai, was growing busier. Suddenly, punctuating the din of running engines and blaring horns, there was a commotion. Half a dozen men and women contracted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to collect fines from passersby found not wearing face masks, or not wearing them properly, had surrounded an autorickshaw, demanding that its solitary passenger pay Rs 200 for violating the Maharashtra government’s mask-wearing rule. The passenger would have none of it, arguing that he’d been wearing his mask the right way.
“You need to pay the fine, it’s the government rule,” one of the fine collectors said, “Or we will dial 100 and you can argue with the police.” Another instructed the autorickshaw driver to park by the side of the road.
Agitated, the passenger stepped off. “You can’t intimidate me like this,” he said. “Can you not see that I am wearing a mask?”
About 15 minutes into their argument about whether he’d been wearing the mask on or below his nose, a man seemingly known to the fine collectors arrived on a bike. Playing mediator in what had turned into a heated argument, he advised the passenger, “Give whatever you have and settle this. You are wasting your time.”
It took another five minutes or so before the passenger was let go, presumably after he paid up. I couldn’t determine if he gave them the full amount and got a receipt or “settled” the dispute for less.
Such comically tedious feuds aren’t an uncommon sight on the city’s roads since the BMC decided in March last year to fine motorists and pedestrians caught without wearing masks or wearing them incorrectly. In recent weeks, though, with the metropolis recording 5,000 to 7,000 new cases daily, measures to contain the spike in infections have taken on added urgency. As such, the BMC has intensified its fine-collection drive. About 20,000 people are being fined per day currently, according to data collected by the municipal body, resulting in an average collection of Rs 40 lakh. In total, over the last year, the BMC has nearly Rs 46.87 crore by fining over 23 lakh people for not wearing masks, or not wearing them properly.
To monitor and fine violators of the mask-wearing rule, the BMC has deployed hundreds of its own workers, christened “clean-up marshals”, and contracted private workforce agencies in each of the city’s 24 wards, Tanaji Kamble, BMC’s public relations officer, said. The Mumbai police and the Railways are conducting similar drives as well. The private fine collectors contracted by the BMC are issued identity cards and receipt books.
In the M West ward, which encompasses Chembur, there are currently 75-80 men and women contracted from two private agencies collecting the fines, said Ravindra Nagarkar, a BMC engineer tasked with supervising fine-collection in the ward.
The agencies keep half of what their workers collect, Nagarkar added. The workers we spoke with at Maitri Park said they are paid a “20 percent commission” if they collect five fines a day. That is, they earn Rs 200 if they bring in Rs 1,000.
Several commuters, shopkeepers and autorickshaw drivers I spoke with, however, alleged that they have personally seen some of the fine collectors skim off their collections. Generally, they explained, the collectors do this by taking less than the prescribed amount of fine – hiked from Rs 200 to Rs 500 on March 27 – and not giving a receipt for it.
“They are everywhere, at every signal, railway station and bus stop,” Baban Patil, 45, an autorickshaw driver said, referring to the fine collectors. “At this signal, there’s a group of 10-12 of them. If you are willing to pay Rs 200 you get a receipt, but if you argue or don’t have the money they will take Rs 50-100.”
Patil has been driving passengers in and around Chembur for 15 years and is a regular at the autorickshaw stand across from the Maitri Park signal.
Asked about such allegations against the fine collectors, Kamble denied them outright.
Yet, the allegations are commonplace.
Mohammad Yunus, 62, was driving a woman recently when a fine collector appeared out of nowhere and jumped onto his autorickshaw. “Not much better than how goons behave, he ran and jumped onto the front seat next to me,” said Yunus. The woman wasn’t wearing a mask and she promptly apologised. The collector asked for Rs 200 but she wouldn’t pay so much. “They settled on Rs 100 after an argument and no receipt was issued.”
If a violator is unwilling to “settle the matter”, the collectors allegedly scare them by mentioning police. “Pay or go to the police station,” they have been heard saying.
“I have seen this happen every day for months now,” said Rakesh Yadav, 28, who runs a paan shop near the Maitri Park signal. “The other day, an old man got out of a bus with the mask on his chin. He did not have Rs 200, they fought with him for 10 minutes and eventually took 50 bucks and let him go.”
Asked about recurring arguments between commuters and the fine collectors, Nagarkar admitted that there have been even physical altercations, and the police have had to get involved.
Has the BMC received complaints about the collectors skimming off money? They haven’t, he said, but they have appointed a “nuisance detector” in every ward, an officer who conducts surprise checks of the fine-collection drive.
The fine-collection drive is now likely to be scrutinised by the Bombay High Court, which has admitted a by a Pune-based NGO demanding transparency and uniformity in the exercise throughout Maharashtra.
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