Samsherganj // Shaikh Wahab sits in front of his small mud house in Jaikrishnapur village in West Bengal and reflects on how his life has changed. Ten years ago, Mr Wahab, 40, left behind a life of crime to become a security guard on the very same motorway where he had previously made his living holding up lorries and cars.
"In that bad phase of my life I earned a lot, but they were all through illegitimate means. Police were always chasing me, I could never sleep in peace at home," Mr Wahab said. The father of six still has 22 criminal cases pending against him - including some for murder. He has been to jail several times. "Now with this meagre wage I get from my job [as a motorway security guard] I can only buy rice for this big family of eight. Yet I am at peace because I am no longer full of stress and tension; I can spend time with my family and I know I am on a legitimate path, as favoured by Allah."
Like Mr Wahab, almost all of the 70 guards who patrol a busy 10km stretch of the national motorway against robberies had at one time been criminals themselves, until they were chosen to take part in a pilot project by the Samsherganj police in West Bengal state and local social workers a decade ago. At that time, motorway robberies had shot up from fewer than 100 a year to more than 1,000. In an unprecedented move, a group of villagers attacked the local police station in Samsherganj, blaming them for inaction.
"Every night, in unfailing regularity, at least three or four robberies took place in Samsherganj and the area turned into a hellhole of crime. With the infiltration of criminals from Bangladesh, it became increasingly difficult for our limited force to police the area," said Mohaimenul Hoque, the former police chief of Samsherganj. It was Mr Hoque who helped pioneer the West Bengal Paribahan Suraksha Bahini (WBPSB), or West Bengal Transport Security Force, in 1998 as part of an "alternative policing" project.
"Using criminals for policing the motorway was indeed a risky idea and some of my seniors were then sceptical about the project. I, too, was little afraid. But within weeks, we got the result, which was positive to an incredible degree," he said. "When on the first anniversary of the launch of the WBPSB it was reported that not a single robbery had taken place on the motorway in the past year, I was flooded with congratulations from citizens and my senior officers."
After the success of the Samsherganj experiment, police in neighbouring Murshidabad and Malda districts launched their own units, inducting about 350 former criminals. All of them have performed "excellently, bringing down motorway robberies almost to zero", a police report said. As well as patrolling the motorways, the WBPSB guards are now helping police with security in villages and towns, and some police openly acknowledge that without the WBPSB, criminals would likely take over the area.
"Under the command of police, they are working as a very powerful security force. We are really lucky to have them by our side," said Ranjan Kumar Sinha, officer in charge of Murshidabad's Suti police station, where 30 WBPSB men are at work. "Since they operated as criminals for years, most of them are tough and smart. They can easily detect other criminals and know how they work, which has helped them become highly efficient security guards."
The WBPSB in Suti are paid with a fund contributed to by local businessmen. In Samsherganj and other areas, they charge drivers of vehicles between five rupees and 20 rupees as a protection fee, which then pay their wages. Because the former criminals are not yet recognised by the government as a legal force, they remain underpaid, and some have even reverted to crime to supplement their income. "At night the area used to be virtually hijacked by the criminals and police were no help. But these WBPSB men changed the face of security here," said Ajit Singh, a local activist.
"By participating in this project, they pledged to change their criminal behaviour and thinking, which is actually very difficult for most criminals to do. "Now, our government should come forwards to help them rejoin society by integrating them into the police force. If we cannot reward them for deserting crime and turning their life around, then we should recognise them for being a part of the police force.
A WBPSB guard provides the same service as a police constable, but he only gets 1,000 rupees a month, which is a quarter or less of an officer's salary. It's an injustice." For Mr Wahab, however, it is enough that he has been able to turn his life around. "I can never return to crime ? People looked down on me because I was a criminal. But now they know that I am a reformed man and guarding against other criminals. I can now walk in my village with my head held high and it has come as the best reward in my new life."
* The National