“Ye side mein khada tha. Goli lag gayi (He was standing nearby. He caught a bullet),” a voice announces on the crackling wireless set. I jolt out of my reverie. I have been inside a Police Control Room(PCR) van for nearly 12 hours now. And it has been a day full of surprises.
Curious to know just what happens inside the ubiquitous white vans, I’d thought I would spend a day inside one of them. A day on the job and I realise there’s definitely more to it than the adrenaline rush that comes with being the first ones to reach a possible site of crime.
“Aapki kismat badhiya hai (You are lucky),” constable Khushhal Gautam, the driver of the PCR van I am in, had told me earlier in the day, “Kai baar to aisa hota hai ghar jaake roti bhi khaane ka mann nahi karta (Often we don’t even feel like having food when we go back home)”.
The Early Hours
It’s 8:15 am. The otherwise hot and dusty roads of Mongolpuri Industrial Area are uncharacteristically cool after an early morning shower. Sub-inspector (SI) Bahadur Singh Solanki introduces me to the two officers I am going to spend the day with: a sprightly assistant sub-inspector (ASI) Surender Singh (53) and a quiet, young constable Khushhal Gautam (24).
There’s a third officer in the van usually, a gunman, but there isn’t one on this one. “People have taken holidays in the summer. We try to keep as many vehicles on the road as we can,” Solanki briefs me. Since 2012, every recruit of the Delhi Police is required to know how to drive in order to keep maximum vans operational, I’m informed.
The first hour is routine. Singh makes entries in a logbook for each item in the van- from the wireless set to the two steel glasses they are provided. Two miniature fans are the only air-conditioning the van has. Apart from the wireless set attached to the dashboard, the officers are also connected to the console operator through a phablet, a phone-and-tablet hybrid, which is also their only connection to the people who call in for help.
Instructions pasted on a window remind them that there can be action against them if the battery of the vehicle gets damaged. ‘The vehicle is more important than our lives,’ is a common refrain I hear throughout the day.
At 9:05 am, an hour after the shift began, we get our first call. ‘J Block kone ki dukaan par (At a shop on the corner in J block)’ and a phone number is all the information sent to the officers from the operator.
Singh is miffed, but as I learn during the day, getting vague, incorrect, and incomplete addresses by callers is a problem PCR officials face on a regular basis. If every caller gave the right address and clearly explained the type of emergency, the police would save a lot of time, Monika Bhardwaj, DCP (PCR) told me later.
With little information to go on, reaching callers can be exasperating at times. Callers can also change their mind at the last moment for no apparent reason, as the caller from J-block did. We had no option but to return.
“We often end up wasting time on bogus calls. When we reach, they say, ‘The child called’. We aren’t able to make it to a genuine call due to that at times,” Singh tells me. “If they charge even 50p for these calls, we’ll get only genuine calls,” Gautam quips when the first caller evades us. “The tab costs money, the diesel costs money,” Singh explains. Whether the call was unwarranted or bogus is something that the officers learn after they have responded. Under any circumstance, however, it cannot be dismissed, and reaching every caller fast is imperative.
On an average, 100, the Delhi police helpline, gets over 25,000 calls every day, Bhardwaj told me. Of these, around 16000-17000 are blank or repeat calls. Of the remaining 8000-9000 calls, 400 calls are those related to heinous crimes. Bhardwaj says an FIR is registered in about 200 of these cases.
Our next caller is a woman who has been hit by a fellow worker and her wrists are bleeding. But she doesn’t want to be taken either to a hospital or to the police station. She just wants someone to scold her contractor! I am confused. Singh calms the two quarreling woman down and we leave.
Over the next three hours, this pattern repeats itself, except one call where a person is badly hit. He agrees to be taken to the hospital. Singh tells him that the local police will help him with the complaint later.
There is a lull on the wireless and we are back to talking about the job. Being a cop in a PCR van is tough. The officers can only take a fixed number of leaves. There are no holidays for festivals or relaxed weekends to spend with family. A day is divided into two shifts starting at 8am and 8pm respectively. If you are on the morning shift, you come back for the night shift the following day.
“No place to sit or go or relax. You have to be on the road,” Bhardwaj says, talking about the challenges of the job. Responding quickly, despite the traffic and topography, is another challenge faced by officers.
While waiting, Gautam tells me about an accident involving a man who fell off the train. While taking the man to the hospital, their uniforms and the vehicle got soiled with blood. “We had to clean the blood off the seats ourselves,” he told me.
As the voices on the wireless become infrequent, the officers explain the silence. “When they return from work and have had a few, then again we’ll start getting calls,” Singh tells me. Weekends are also busy times. “They are idle at home then. They end up doing something,” he explains.
It’s five in the evening and I am starting to get restless. I have tried sitting in different positions, killed time with music (a benefit not available to the officers), but the fatigue and boredom start getting to me. I have my earphones plugged in when we receive a call from two groups quarrelling over an accident.
As night draws closer, mosquitoes make their way into the van. By seven, I am losing interest in any conversation. I just nod and wonder how the officers stay alert throughout. There were no public toilets in sight and they had not taken any loo breaks.
Waiting for the bus back home, I hear an urgent voice on the wireless asking a van to reach Mundka metro station. The wireless goes on a tizzy, but I ignore the noise until, at around 7:30, a van relays the message about a person being hit with a bullet.
In what is purportedly a case of revenge-shooting, three bike-borne assailants had shot at a man on Rohtak Road, I would learn later. ASI Anand Prakash, who was bringing a PCR van back from repair, intervened when he heard the shots. Soon, a constable also reached the site and together they apprehended two of the alleged shooters. The message I had overheard was from a van deployed to help a passer-by who had caught a bullet.
The officers in my van wonder whether Prakash and the constable will get promoted for their bravery. As the neon lights of the city lit up the slowly darkening sky, I get ready to leave. The officers wait for a few more minutes.
My time in the PCR van is over, but another set of officers are warming up for work. It is going to be a long night for them.